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27 May, 2011  ▪  Samijlo Vors

Television for a Society

Why Ukrainian television needs a boost of focus

TELEVISION NOT DEAD YET

It is too early to bury television. Pessimists are raising the alarm and optimists are rubbing their hands in glee: both sides claim that television is rapidly losing its audience to the Internet at a rate of 1-2% per year. In a few years they say, there will be no subject for discussion as the worldwide trend gathers momentum. This is not surprising considering that online news is delivered faster and movies can be downloaded without commercials and video is easier to manipulate and control on the Internet. Optimists and television industry representatives counter that the migration, although real, is not that rapid nor will it be fatal. Technological advances do not immediately bury older media. Rather, they push them aside: radio did not supplant printed newspapers and television did not kill the radio. Television will continue to safely enjoy its leading position, at least in the near future. But these considerations are too general to describe the situation on Ukraine’s television market – the business aspect – and in its information space – the ideological aspect. In order to see what is really happening, we need to consider everything impacting the situation in the country.

THE CHURCHILL PRINCIPLE

From the standpoint of a mildly demanding adult, Ukrainian television is pitiful, especially since the bulk of TV programming is composed up of supposedly cheerful and carefree content.

This is no great tragedy. A colleague of mine who is a star of the previous era popularized a saying attributed to Sir Winston Churchill among television folk: “Television is cheap and vulgar entertainment.” Denying this is tantamount to doubting Newton’s second law. However, today the situation is vastly different from even landscape 10 years ago: town and city residents have easy access to cable networks with 100-150 channels most of which are specialized (sports, music, education, etc.), and so the audience becomes gradually fragmented into interest groups. These kinds of processes never happen overnight and thus are not easy to record unless you know what you are looking for. However I repeat – the great majority of people has and will continue to have a small number of channels. This is caused by the essence of television as a means of communication and the passive nature of TV viewers who are willing to exert their will and provide feedback in one, effort-sparing way only – by working the remote control.

The experience of all developed countries regardless of language, culture and traditions is convincing: even given a virtually unlimited choice, 70% of viewers prefer 7(±2) permanent broadcasters. This distribution can be well described by normal bell curve.

This lion’s share of viewers, from two-thirds to three-fourths, is what advertisers vie for. The tastes of this silent, lazy majority are similar and predictable – not because these people are “dumb,” as some media managers describe them in private, but because they see television as a way to relax and nothing more.

Opinion polls regularly published in the press and online show that Ukraine has an established group of leaders. These include seven TV channels: Inter, 1+1, Ukraina, STB, ICTV, Novyi, and NTN. Depending on the panel (all of Ukraine, cities with 50,000+ residents or viewers in different age groups), these various media rise and fall in rankings, but the group remains the same. Other channels are at their heels and are likewise rated higher or lower in different polls: TET, K1, First National Channel, and Russia’s Channel One. All of them, just like TV channels elsewhere in the world, are focused on one thing only – tickling their audience's fancies. There is nothing sinful about it unless you consider attending circumstances, particularly a certain added value of this tickling.

COLONIAL PRODUCTS

Even a quick analysis of the feed from the leading TV channels shows that they broadcast foreign-made entertainment products. The Ukrainian Week has already written about Ukrainian television and concluded it is dominated by Russian programming. Calculating shares of airtime is more tedious than difficult: copy a weekly TV program schedule and use Excel to calculate the airtime for each group of programs. It is a good idea to focus on prime time, which attracts the largest viewership. Why? Ukraine has quotas for Ukrainian-made programs which are spelled out in broadcasting licenses every TV channel has to obtain from the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council (NTRBC). It is easy to meet these demands formally by scheduling the required “correct” content for “dead” periods – either during the day or late at night. If you take the 6-11 p.m. span, two years ago Russian programs accounted for 46-75% of all broadcasts on the leading channels. Now the picture looks somewhat different at first glance. On workdays, the ratio of domestic to foreign content is as follows: Inter – 30/70, 1+1 – 55/45, Ukraina – 7/93 (!), STB – 78/22, ICTV – 40/60, Novyi – 75/25, and NTN – 37/63. On weekends and holidays, the proportions may change somewhat. But there are several aspects that no software can take into account.

First, a large portion of Ukrainian TV series, documentaries, comedy shows, etc. are either produced to be sold in Russia or commissioned by Russian television companies. Thus, “our” detective movies produced in “our” studio have dialogs in Russian, the cars have Russian license plates, and the policemen wear Russian uniforms. Formally, this is a Ukrainian-made movie and the NTRBC can find no fault with it, but it is essentially a colonial product.

Second, Russian characters have been demonstratively “infiltrating” seemingly purely Ukrainian contexts.

Third, there is an overall tendency to emulate the general atmosphere that reigns supreme in Russia’s information space. It is far removed from Pasternak and Brodsky and is more reminiscent of Russian chanson. As a result, the national television industry looks to the leaders and produces masterpieces of a similar (low) quality.

MISSIONIMPOSSIBLE, OR?

Let us agree from the outset: we are not talking about crazed Russians in contrast to innocent Ukrainians or Americans (Britons, Mexicans, Brazilians, etc.) Television across the world is similarly permeated with kitsch, cheap horror movies and primitive jokes. The gags Ukraine's 95 Kvartal comes up with look like literary masterpieces in comparison. There is no denying that the overall direction is deplorable. Despite total control and censorship, Russian television from time to time features relicts of the wise, good and eternal. While remaining unswervingly loyal, huge Russian channels sometimes venture into experiments that can hurt their popularity ratings. Take for example Oleg Dorman’s film Podstrochnik (Interlinear) on Channel One: a documentary epic based on an interview with just one woman, albeit a fascinatingly interesting and immensely cultured figure. Not by any stretch of the imagination can I picture something similar on Ukrainian television – no Ukrainian general producer is like Konstantin Ernst and a copy is doomed to be triter than the original.

I am talking about something the fathers of such projects as 1+1, Novyi and ICTV were well aware of at the dawn of our television industry: a channel is not the sum total of content but an integral product. “The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan, classic of media research. The cumulative message of any Russian channel is easy to decipher: “we” are good and “they” (the rest) are bad; Russia has risen, even though all these Americans, Ukrainians, Muslims, Georgians and others like them are waiting for any opportunity to hurt it. On one hand, this message relies on the expectations of the viewership and, on the other hand, on the huge pie to be divided. In 2010, Russia’s market of TV commercials was worth USD 3,929 million. Ukraine’s market has for years been worth a little over one-tenth of Russia’s (USD336.7 million).

We need to consider this: if the majority of programs on our channels are Russian and their managers are better qualified, why do Ukrainian viewers (at least those who can watch Russia’s TV channels) rate Ukrainian channels higher, while the Russian channels rank 9-14 at best? Indeed, why? Why do Ukrainians prefer to watch a series on a Ukrainian channel later rather than on a Russian channel for which it was originally produced earlier? The answer is simple: they perceive the Ukrainian package as an identifier – yet another form which is now totally void of content. In other words, there is demand for “our” television content, but there is a lack of people who will analyze it and draw conclusions. As they race to attract a fraction of percent more viewers, Ukrainian channels fail to perceive a critical need for having their own direction.

Managers and programmers would have to focus, excuse the expression, their mission, even if it has a pop market wrapping. If market analysts go to the trouble of formulating missions for companies that produce bicycles, ketchup and detergents, it is a must for producers of TV content. And I am talking about marketing basics. There is a medieval prejudice that it is not the seller’s business to educate the client – and it is fundamentally wrong. There has a well-known paradox since Marx: supply drives demand rather than the other way around. Thirty years ago no one knew he needed a plasma TV, notepad, iPhone and hoards of other useful and convenient gadgets. A decade ago no one complained about a lack of 3D movies or sushi bars. Producers diligently generated consumer demand for these products. It may sound savage and smack of communist party practices, but TV producers have to educate their viewers. It is their duty before their investors.

In reality, no quota system or administrative control can replace the vision of TV managers. The future belongs to broadcasters who can send their viewers a simple signal that will bring Kipling to mind: We are of one blood with you; We are in one boat and share your joys and worries. Of course, this requires having a society, but then television is one of the tools for shaping one. That these forward-looking efforts fit into the concept of patriotism should not frighten pragmatists: even Russia has grasped that patriotism can be sold, so it would be professional inaptitude to ignore this resource.

GLOSSARY

Rating is the number of viewers in percentage to the total viewership who watch a particular channel during a specified period of airtime.

Share is a number of viewers in percentage to those who have their TVs on during a specified period of time. This index is more convenient but less informative: for example, a 3 a.m. show may have a huge share but a low rating.

Prime time, or prime, is the time when a maximum number of viewers regularly watch television. Countries differ in the way they define this period. In Ukraine, prime is the time from 6 to 11 p.m.

Panel is a representative sample of viewers selected according to a certain criterion. Sociological services are commissioned by TV channels and advertisement agencies to measure their content consumption preferences using special devices.

Marshall McLuhan(1911–1980) is a Canadian philosopher who studied the interaction between society and electronic media.

 

TÊTE-À-TÊTE WITH REAL GUYS

The Ukrainian Weekhas looked into what Ukrainian television feeds its viewers, especially on May 9. For the sake of the experiment’s soundness, we selected a neutral TV channel, TET, which is heavy on entertainment content and clearly geared toward young viewership. What we have seen is horrifying.

8:10 a.m. – Telepuzyky. In comparison with some of the programs scheduled for later in the day, these imbecile-looking roly-polies look like the epitome of intellectual TV content.

8:30 a.m. – Yeralash (2007 series). This series for children is harmless in itself but sets the tone for a score of Russian series that fill TET’s programming from morning till night.

9:20 a.m. – Who Wears the Pants in the House? Flat humor, plastic actors and a poor plot – the lure of Russian TV is there in its entirety.

10:15 – My Fairy Nanny. This is arguably one of the most odious series and one that promotes the image of an attractive and dumb Ukrainian girl, which is so dear to the average Russian. TET is now broadcasting old series dating back to the early 2000s.

11:10 – Home Restaurant. A re-broadcast of the New Year (!) culinary show made in Russia, of course. As always, it was about making prohibitively expensive dishes.

12:05 – Formal Dinner. Another cooking show with an astounding density of affected Russian political correctness per unit of airtime.

13:00 – Let’s Get Married. A typical show for housewives, recommended for viewing while cooking a dinner in the kitchen. Three bad actors are trying to marry a girl with the face of a cheap prostitute.

13:55 – Finishing School. Another portion of Russian soap operas, now set in the 19th century. It stands out from the rest through its disgusting music score in the style of the Russian chanson disguised as classical music.

14:50 – Betrayal Theory. A reality show in which a man or a woman appears to invite a TV crew to tail the other half. This is the first program in a half day worth of programming produced by the channel itself. Even though it copies a similar American show, you can somehow force yourself to view it. It works better when you are a bit drunk, though. These are plots with actors rather than real stories, but they hit the bull’s eye as far as an average couch potato is concerned.

15:45 – Your Mother. That is another reality show produced by TET. It revolves around guys having dates with mothers before seeing their daughters. Characters use long-forgotten expressions which the script writers believe are still in circulation among the young folk.

16:15 – Dom-2. A Russian reality show. No comment. You have to watch it yourself.

17:10 – Univer. A Russian TV series populated with students that look more like emo-characters in a Japanese anime.

18:05 – Who Wears the Pants in the House? The second circle of hell.

19:00 – My Fair Nanny. Expletives used.

20:00 – Univer. When will it finally be over?

21:00 – Real Guys. This series is the climax of imbecility and propaganda. I was itching to rename it Real Vegetables, because this is what it will turn children who watch it into.

22:00 – School. A cross between Univer and Real Guys. Zombifying children from early on is the correct marketing approach. The channel’s management seems to be interested in two topics only – sex and food devoured in inordinate quantities – without a hint of anything close to intellectual product. TET does not even bother with the news – it is simply missing from its programming. In fact, viewers of the “vegetable” variety which are targeted by TET’s direct promotion of moroseness do not need the news anyway. The characters speak exclusively Russian, to boot.

23:00 – Dom-2. Again. The Ukrainian Week decided to end the experiment and turned off the boob tube.


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