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The BBC's Rob Parsons
"A strip tease has seen the programme rocket in the ratings"
 real 28k

Saturday, 24 June, 2000, 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK
Russia's naked news
Newsreader strips
Ratings for M1 TV's news programme have soared
By Robert Parsons in Moscow

It is Saturday evening and the titles roll at the start of Naked Truth, a summary of the week's news on Moscow's M1 TV.

Svetlana Pesotskaya pouts at the camera and launches into a summary of President Putin's tour of Europe. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Svetlana has the poise and delivery of any of Russia's top anchors.

My mum and dad love the show

Svetlana Pesotskaya
But then she flicks at her hair and begins very slowly to unbutton her shirt.

Svetlana is about to take the nudes where nudes have never been before.

As the story unfolds, so does Svetlana. Eyes focused on the auto-cue and maintaining a perfect delivery, she wriggles out of her pale green Chanel jacket and slips her shirt off her shoulder. Svetlana by this point is alone in paying any attention to the news. Everyone else is focused on her perfect sun-tan.

Ratings hit

Naked Truth has taken the ratings by storm, transforming the fortunes of a television station whose audience is restricted to half of Moscow. Sergei Moskvin, who invented the show, said it began life as a one-off joke - a light-hearted send-up of Russian current affairs. But interest snow-balled. Eight months later, the show is cult viewing.

Sergei is an expansive man, who began his professional career as a television engineer back in the days of the Soviet Union. Today, he revels in his success. I found him reclining in the generous yellow folds of a leather armchair. He was talking on the phone - explaining with great excitement his future plans for more TV shows.

Where do you put a microphone when the presenter isn't wearing a stitch of clothing?

I have so many great ideas, he said, leaping out of his chair and heading for a massive plasma TV set. Svetlana sprang into view - or at least her legs did ... and her garters. An artist was sitting under her desk while she read the news, drawing her in a variety of erotic poses.

This, Sergei explained, is the secret of the show's success. There is complete dissonance between what you see and what you hear. A woman undressing and serious news are incompatible. Put them together and you get something absurd. It was hard not to agree.

There is always a recurring theme to the gags. This week, it is the government's arrest of the independent media magnate, Vladimir Gusinsky. While the rest of the media are worrying about freedom of speech, Naked Truth has Svetlana getting arrested at the end of the news for refusing to keep her clothes on. Two policemen step onto the set, put her in handcuffs and raise her arms above her head.

A pair of hands, strategically placed, is all that preserves her decency.

Jealous boyfriend

The operation is run on a shoe-string ... yes, shoe-string. The set is minimal and even the technical staff get to figure occasionally in the show. And inevitable problems crop up. Like, where do you put a microphone when the presenter isn't wearing a stitch of clothing? In her hair of course.

I caught up with Svetlana in her dressing room, enveloped in a cloud of hair spray. Her make-up artist was putting on the final touches before she stepped in front of the cameras. Every stitch of clothing was properly in place.

Russia's MPs are queuing up to be interviewed by topless reporters

Naked Truth, she said, had transformed her life. Until last year a little known actress, she now gets recognised on the street.

But fame has come at a price. Her boyfriend gave her an ultimatum - either naked truth or me. The way Svetlana tells it, she did not waste much time making up her mind. Her eyes widen and her lips shape into a pout.

"He just wouldn't see sense", she says, "He couldn't cope with the idea that half the men in Moscow might be looking at me so we went our separate ways."

Still, there were compensations.

"The great thing", she tells me, "is my mum and dad love the show."

The truth of the Naked Truth is that the viewers never actually see Svetlana naked - there is always a hand, or a boxing glove, or some other conveniently placed prop, in the way. It is a long-running tease that helps keep the viewers interested.

But the other members of the news team are not so restrained.

Eager MPs

Nowhere it seems, is out of bounds - Naked Truth even has a parliamentary correspondent. Russia's MPs are queuing up to be interviewed by topless reporters clutching giant-sized microphones to their cleavage.

Masha is eye-catchingly endowed and puts her questions with deadpan aplomb. Listen to the interview without seeing the pictures and you would never guess she was half naked.

Some of her subjects are senior politicians - among them members of the communist party like Alexander Saliyi, an expert on electoral fraud. He sees no problem in appearing in the show.

Lenin, he said, once wrote that one should use any means at one's disposal to further the struggle. What is good enough for my leader is good enough for me.

And like any self-respecting news programme Naked Truth has a weather report - reported with inimitable style by a professional striptease artist who gyrates erotically before a map of Russia.

As the temperatures rise, the clothes come off. Russia, it seems, has found a novel way of keeping abreast of the news.

And maybe not just Russia. According to the owners of the channel, the rights to the idea have been bought in Britain and France.

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