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The Dependence of Russian Independent Television

Who is to blame for the demise of TV Rain? Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Who is to blame for the demise of TV Rain? Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

In the last two weeks, seven satellite and cable television providers decided to stop broadcasting TV Rain, Russia’s only independent news station, cutting [ru] its national audience from just over ten million households to about two million. The catalyst for TV Rain’s troubles was a January survey the station conducted about the WWII Siege of Leningrad, which self-described Russian patriots interpreted as offensively worded. The apparent crackdown on the channel sparked a wave of anger from Russian Internet users, many of whom accused the Kremlin of forcing cable providers to abandon TV Rain.

TV Rain’s chief investor, Aleksandr Vinokurov, said at a press conference [ru] on February 4, 2014, that the station is “absolutely sure” that the companies now dropping the channel are doing so “under pressure.” Though he refused to name names, Julia Ioffe of The New Republic reported days earlier that Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexey Gromov, and another high-placed figure, Sergey Chemezov, have both called cable and satellite operators several times, demanding that they “boot” the station.

While Vinokurov’s February 4 comments in part reaffirmed the widespread perception that TV Rain is currently battling political censorship, he also seems to have precipitated a backlash against the station, leading some bloggers to highlight the financial backstory that perhaps diminishes the degree of political persecution at work.

In his comments, Vinokurov offered [ru] to let cable and satellite operators broadcast TV Rain for free during the 2014 calendar year. Writing for politcom.ru, analyst Tatiana Stanovaya asked [ru] why Vinokurov is trying to address a political problem with “marketing” solutions. (In a Facebook post [ru] hours earlier, Stanovaya went so far as to call Vinokurov “naïve.”) For others online, the press conference’s focus on “marketing” similarly turned attention away from ‘crackdown by the bloody regime’ toward questions about the television business and TV Rain’s troubled past in that industry.

Why, after all, does Vinokurov’s offer extend only to the end of the year? What is the incentive to sign TV Rain, if operators must renegotiate new (paid) contracts in 2015? Stanislav Apetian, the blogger known as Politrash (who is notorious for ties to the Russian establishment and for attacks on opposition leader Alexey Navalny), seized on this detail, writing the next day on LiveJournal and Facebook that TV Rain’s troubles are more financial than political.

Drawing on a June 2013 report in Forbes.ru, Apetian cataloged TV Rain’s growth since April 2010, pointing out that the station’s problems with cable and satellite operators are as old as TV Rain itself. In the past, the chief dispute with operators like “Tricolor” has been who should pay whom. For the first year that the station existed, virtually no one was interested in carrying TV Rain, unless the channel agreed to pay for the privilege. Moscow’s biggest cable provider, Akado, broadcasted the station for a week in 2010 and then dropped it. Months later, the satellite company NTV+ agreed to carry TV Rain, but only after Sindeeva appealed to Natalia Timakova, a close friend who happened to be the press secretary for then-President Dmitri Medvedev.

In late 2011 and early 2012, Vinokurov, whose private fortune bankrolls TV Rain, actively sought outside investors to share the burden (and hopefully the future profits) of running the station. He courted the money of Mikhail Prokhorov and Alisher Usmanov, two of the richest men in Russia, both of whom have close ties to the Kremlin. Vinokurov couldn’t reach a deal with either of them, telling Forbes.ru that their offers to invest in TV Rain were underwhelming. The failure to tie the station to a powerful elite group like Prokhorov’s or Usmanov’s would later have great costs for TV Rain. Instead, Vinokurov and Sindeeva appear to have ‘bet on the wrong horse,’ placing their hopes in President Medvedev.

Even from the start, loyalty to Medvedev was never easy. In late March 2011, Sindeeva actually pulled the channel’s most popular show, “Poet and Citizen,” off the air, claiming that a lyric in the program directed at Medvedev was excessively critical. After a Facebook post explaining her reasons for the censorship, Sindeeva even appeared [ru] on TV Rain itself to defend the decision, on-air.

President Medvedev visits TV Rain's studio, 25 April 2011, Kremlin photo service, public domain.

President Medvedev visits TV Rain's studio. Medvedev center, Natalia Sindeeva right. 25 April 2011, Kremlin photo service, public domain.

TV Rain is often described as a product of the political thaw that occurred in Russia during Medvedev’s single term as president between 2008 and 2012. While this sentiment seems to imply that TV Rain bloomed into existence spontaneously, Apetian points out that the station failed to attract serious cable and satellite coverage until April 2011, when President Medvedev (less than a month after the “Poet and Citizen” scandal) personally visited the station’s office in downtown Moscow. Within weeks of Medvedev’s visit, Akado was broadcasting TV Rain again, even paying the station a “symbolic” 28 dollars per month for the rights. Before long, upward of 13 different operators were beaming the channel across the country—all suddenly amenable to TV Rain’s refusal to pay them any money.

Many of those cable and satellite companies are now backing away from TV Rain. Some are jumping on the bandwagon of moral outrage, faulting the station for its Leningrad Siege faux pas, and others cite business grounds. The suits running Russia’s cable and satellite operators have leapt at the chance to ditch TV Rain. That opportunity exists thanks to the mounting hostility of Russian apparatchiki and the decline of Medvedev’s political influence. But would a bit of bluster in the Duma and a few angry phone calls from a former arms-export official so easily sway an entire industry, if that industry wasn’t already itching to be rid of TV Rain?

Echo of Moscow pundit Anton Orekh asked this exact question in a blog post [ru] on February 4, arguing that cable and satellite operators can kill two birds with one stone by dropping TV Rain now, appeasing the conservatives in the Russian establishment and jettisoning a troublesome content-producer they never wanted in the first place.

The TV Rain developments suggest that its relative success was more a function of political protection (now gone) than business acumen. The station lost its patron before gaining the momentum necessary to stand on its own. Now the country's politicians and businessmen seem determined to watch it wither and die. That could very well happen—and soon.

  • John H Newcomb

    Maybe if Dozhd’s Leningrad survey had revealed that only a small minority (if any) respondents supported the city’s capitulation to German forces, the establishment might not have noticed. However, the 54% result was plainly embarrassing to many in power. But if Dozhd station goes, it won’t help Russia’s low ranking of 148 on Press Freedom Index, already down 6 from last year: http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2013,1054.html

    • Kevin Rothrock

      Why do you think it embarrassed the Russian authorities? Surely none of them bear responsibility for the Soviet High Command’s military strategy in the Siege of Leningrad.

      My impression is that the establishment interprets the results of the survey to be more an indictment of Dozhd’s audience. WWII was the late Soviet Union’s foundational myth, and it still serves much the same function today in Russia. It’s sacrosanct, and “flipping the script” is considered immoral.

      • John H Newcomb

        Not Leningrad strategy but current Russian authorities bear responsibility for now maintaining that “foundational myth”.

        Obviously, one might assume that if even greater traces of Soviet Union were around today, Dozhd personnel would have been Gulaged by now, but as it is, the incident appears to provide more confirmation of why RSF would be ranking Russia rather low on its press freedom list.

        As Lobkov notes, authorities have been waiting for a reason to shutter Dozhd and the survey was convenient context:
        http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-dozhd-tv-off-air/25248293.html

        • Kevin Rothrock

          The WWII narrative being what it is, I think the survey’s actual results do more to indict Dozhd’s audience than shame the state’s general policy of treating WWII as a sacred victory. My assumption is that it only cements the perception of “Main-Street” Russians that the TV station and its demographic are unpatriotic and unserious. I’m not endorsing that perception, but I really don’t think anyone comes out of the survey with mud on their faces except the people at Dozhd. (Remember that they apologized profusely for the question and canceled the program that aired the poll.)

          Lobkov’s comments don’t really shed much light on this story. As an NTV expat and a current Dozhd employee, one could hardly expect him to say anything other than “the poll was a pretext.”

          I’m not denying that Russian television is heavily censored, but I think it’s important to consider the financial components of Dozhd’s story. Most reports, in English and in Russian, tend to ignore this aspect.

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