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14 February, 2018  ▪  Ihor Korolenko

Studio sleight of hand

How Ukraine’s talk shows work

Yevhen Murayev often features on Ukrainian Format, a new talk show on NewsOne, the TV channel he owns 

In Ukraine, political talk shows typically enjoy very high ratings, and so nearly all the top national channels broadcast at least one talk show a week to their viewers. As a rule, they are also aired during the primest of prime times, Thursday or Friday evening.

For television, talk shows are very convenient as they cost little to produce. Politicians join the studio for free. Indeed, some have even been known to pay to be on the TV screen during prime time. Best of all, they mostly generate their own dramas without any effort on the part of the producer or the host of the show. The key is to bring together the right mix of people for the broadcast and all that remains is to shift viewpoints and angles. Such shows typically fill their commercial slots quite easily. People love to watch politicians squabble and the audiences for these talk shows easily reach several million.

The secret of political talk shows is quite simple. The ordinary householder who watches TV regularly treats these weekly political dramas as just another serial, a bit like reality TV, where actors are replaced by ordinary people. This never-ending political version of “As The World Turns” has its heroes and villains, the people in the show often fight and then make up, and they form and break alliances. Unlike cheap soap operas, however, Ukrainian politics has a way of evolving in unpredictable directions. Yesterday’s champion of the poor can turn instantly into the worst scumbag, while a seemingly invincible official suddenly loses everything and becomes a nobody.

Viewers all have their favorites, who often are not the wise and reasonable ones but the ones who cause a stir, even ranting and raving—which is what being a showman is all about. It’s been obvious for a long time that, put Yulia Tymoshenko, Oleh Liashko or Vadym Rabinovych in the mix, and the ratings will jump no matter what the program. In fact, these high-profile politicians can do a lot to lift a little-watched channel out of the doldrums and into prime-time ratings.

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Since Ukrainian television is primarily not a business matter but a tool of political influence, it means that even talk shows have one main purpose: to provide high-profile PR for those politicians who are close to the owners of the channel and to smear their rivals. Indeed, the topics of talk shows often lead to a tug-o-war between the owner and top government officials. And the participants are sometimes deliberately chosen in order to give the desired “tone” to the debates and ensure that the right “ideas” come out on top.

For instance, the Inter channel’s Dark Mirror hosted for years by Russian journalist Yevgeni Kiseliov, entertained leaders of the rump Party of the Regions, aka Opposition Bloc, Yuriy Boyko and Oleksandr Vilkul, far more often than any other channels. Kiseliov also invited MPs Dmytro Dobrodomov and Serhiy Kaplin, both of whom were considered close to the channel’s most recent owners, oligarchs Serhiy Liovochkin and Dmytro Firtash. The channel has often had an openly anti-Ukrainian position. A newer talk show called Ukrainian Format, which was recently launched on NewsOne, often features the channel’s owner Yevhen Murayev, also openly anti-Ukrainian.

The Right to Govern on Channel 1+1 for obvious reasons often welcomes politicians from the circle of Ihor Kolomoiskiy, the channel’s owner. For instance, the leader of the Vidrodzhennia or Revival Party, Viktor Bondar, often appears on the program, although he is little known in Ukraine and very rarely appears on any other channel.

Yet these examples are only the tip of the iceberg, the visible part. Ukrainian talk shows also have secret backroom intrigues that are only familiar to specialists, politicians and insiders who are actually involved in developing the content. For example, the subject of a particular program can sometimes be changed completely at the last minute after talks with the Presidential Administration. Bankova doesn’t always want certain topics to be raised publicly and is willing to make concessions to the individual media magnate in return for dropping them. Sometimes even an “undesirable” guest can be removed from the roster hours before going on air and replaced by a more neutral individual.

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There are also some tacit rules that talk-show guests are not to violate in order not to become persona non grata on a given television channel. Top of the list, unsurprisingly, is not to criticize the owner. For instance, on the ICTV show Svoboda Slova [Freedom of Speech], no one makes nasty remarks about ex-president Leonid Kuchma. The channel is owned by Viktor Pinchuk, his son-in-law. In other words, freedom of speech is often a formality. The only exception is Channel 5, which is owned by Petro Poroshenko. After all, its owner is in the top position in the country, so it’s impossible not to mention what he does on air. But that is compensated for by a long “black list” of people whom hosts are not allowed to invite to their shows, including some of the president’s most vocal critics and his main political rivals.

Of course, there are certain tricks and manipulative moves that hosts use once the program is in progress in order to allow one person more air time and cut off others when convenient. Since it’s not possible to never ever invite members of enemy parties on air, these undesirable guests are restricted in every way possible. For instance, some odious politicians and experts will be invited to the same show and their job is to interrupt the opponent as often as possible, to ask awkward questions, and to provoke scandals and squabbles on air. At other times, an unwanted guest will be given the microphone a minute before a commercial break so that it looks like the person was inadvertently interrupted. After a 15-minute pause, viewers have already forgotten who said what on what topic and the word goes to some other participant.

One nuanced aspect is working with the live audience. They are typically present in all of the main Ukrainian talk shows and at a particular moment can also affect the direction the program takes. For instance, the host can suddenly give the microphone to a “representative of the public,” who proceeds to ask one of the guests a trick question. In addition, the studio audience often gets to vote on some of the propositions being offered by one politician or another. However, the results presented graphically on the screen often have no relationship to the numbers that were shown during the actual voting process. Even applause is not spontaneous, as a rule, but comes in response to a signal at the proper time when the preferred speaker has said something.

How the studio audience is selected is a separate issue and one that many fans of talk shows undoubtedly wonder about a lot. Some programs really do select their on-air audiences almost literally from off the street, such as Shuster Live, whose host, Savik Shuster, generally has people from across the country. But on Dark Mirror on the Inter channel, the studio audience generally consists of students from Kyiv universities who are paid to attend and are driven back to their distant dorms after the show ends.

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There isn’t a single political talk show in Ukraine today that is completely independent and objective, and over which neither oligarchs nor politicians have any influence. Shuster tried to run that kind of show more than once, making it clear that he didn’t want owners to determine what the content of his shows would be. The Shuster Studio managed to work with every single national channel in Ukraine but quit all of them because of his determined position. In the end, he and his partner Pavlo Yelizarov tried launching their own independent channel called 3sTV, but it only lasted a year. It appears that the main problem with Ukraine’s media market is that there really isn’t one.

It’s no secret that all the country’s top channels are running in the red and survive only because their owners subsidize them. They can’t survive on paid commercials because there simply wasn’t enough advertising to go around even before the Euromaidan and the war and there’s even less since the crisis. And so the 3sTV channel was doomed from the outset. In early 2017, it stopped broadcasting new programs. Even a campaign to get viewers to subscribe, which is how Russia’s independent Dozhd channel survives, was not enough to keep it afloat, as Ukrainians weren’t ready to pay for content. In any case, supply far outstrips demand in Ukraine today.

Indeed, Ukrainian viewers suffered the loss of this granddaddy of the talk-show circuit relatively painlessly, quickly switching their attention to other channels. What they want, after all, is not objectivity, but entertainment—and there’s no shortage of the latter. The main thing to keep in mind is that talk shows are not journalism in the classic sense of the word, but shows, first and foremost. And their purpose is not to get to the truth but to make sure that the most possible viewers tune in. And so, complaining about the obvious bias in such programs is pretty pointless.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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