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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 August 2005, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
Propaganda and power on Russian TV
Jonathan Charles
By Jonathan Charles
BBC News, Ekaterinburg

The battle is on for television viewers in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg. But with many channels owned by politicians, the medium is often used more as a way to improve popularity than to provide fair and balanced reports.

President Putin on television
Control of Russia's media remains even since the fall of Communism
As I sat in my room, surrounded by the dark brown furniture and dark brown wallpaper which only factories in the Soviet Union of the 1960s could have mass produced, a personable, young, blonde lady appeared on my TV screen.

Standing in front of a weather map, telling me that Ekaterinburg could look forward to a heat wave, she slowly started taking off her clothes.

It was the most comprehensive weather forecast that I have ever seen.

It takes a long time to strip in style. By the time that her leopard-print underwear had come off, I had heard about the long-range forecast for most of Europe.

The stripping weather girl is the latest weapon in a battle for viewers.

Ratings war

After watching her sacrifices for the cause, I went in to the studios of the TV station Channel 4, which broadcasts her show.

There I met the news director, Alyona Vugilmann, whose news team has a reputation as one of the best in Ekaterinburg.

When I mentioned that I had seen the rather unusual weather report, Alyona held her head in her hands, muttering: "Ya znayoo, ya znayoo" - I know, I know.

Edward Rossel at a video conference (picture copyright: Information Dept. of the Office of the Governor)
Governor Edward Rossel's TV station is one of many in Ekaterinburg (pic: Information Dept. of the Office of the Governor)
She told me that Channel 4 had been running it for the past three months. It has apparently helped to attract late evening audiences.

I asked her whether she was worried about damaging the station's image.

"Yes", she replied, "but ratings are ratings. The market's becoming more competitive with every day that passes."

As I walked through Ekaterinburg, a rather uninspiring industrial town which seems to be composed almost entirely of grey, concrete blocks of flats, stretching as far as the eye can see, I passed advertising posters publicising TV programmes.

The million and a half people living here have a dozen stations to choose from.

Channel 4 prides itself on being independent but it is having to combat very well funded rivals which have a different agenda.

Influential medium

Almost every station is owned by someone who wants to make sure that their personal message is heard.

Map of Russia
Ekaterinburg is in the Ural mountains, on the edge of Siberia
Some are controlled by companies, some are loyal to the mayor, some to the regional governor.

For these channels, boosting ratings is not about improving profits but about gaining influence.

It was only when I went to the offices of the regional governor, Edward Rossel, that I realised how far some of the main players are prepared to go.

He has his own state-of-the-art TV studio. Every night, it produces a half-hour programme called The Governor's Day. It is broadcast on Channel 10.

During the show, he is featured visiting poverty-stricken villages, picking his way through muddy farmyards as horse-drawn carts pass in the background.

It is, sometimes, unintentionally hilarious.

We're masters of propaganda. We had decades of experience of brain washing during Communist times
Governor's aide
I watched as the almost 70-year-old governor was shown, supposedly, answering voters' e-mails.

As he tentatively poked with one finger at a keyboard, his face bore the look of a man who has never seen a computer before. The word "staged" came to mind.

Afterwards, I asked one of his aides whether it was really a prime-time crowd puller.

"Oh yes", he said, "the audience love it. After all, we're masters of propaganda. We had decades of experience of brain washing during Communist times."


For regional governors like Edward Rossel there is much more at stake than ever.

Recent changes to Russia's constitution mean that they have to curry favour with President Putin. The Kremlin now has the right to reappoint or dismiss governors and they are no longer voted into office through often suspect elections.

It is all part of the centralising of power and control in Moscow.

Mr Rossel and the other governors hope that by using television they can appear popular with citizens, allowing them to keep their jobs.

Maybe, one day they'll get the truth - in another country, in another time
Yevgeny, journalist
But Mr Rossel's opponents are also trying to manipulate opinion.

At the studios of another Ekaterinburg TV station - one which backs the town's mayor - I was given an insight into the black arts which are deployed.

Yevgeny, one of the journalists, told me: "We do lots of stories about the mayor, all of them supportive. When we cover the governor, we don't criticise him but we also make sure that we don't do any stories which praise him."

What about the audience's right to expect fair and balanced reporting? I asked. Yevgeny went silent.

After a long pause, he said: "It's a good theory. Maybe, one day they'll get the truth - in another country, in another time."

It seems that while Ekaterinburg's stripping weather girl might be prepared to reveal all, no-one else here is.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 4 August, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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