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‘And the winner is…’

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Capitalism has not been kind to morals and ethics in Russia, and the world of television is no exception. Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing has become more important than making programmes of quality and worth, says Lyubov Borusyak.

Lyubov Borusyak
23 October 2013

TEFI, Russian TV’s professional awards, were established in 1995. Immediately after the tenth anniversary celebrations in 2005, the award was rocked by a series of scandals, which continue to this day. 

The ‘Hamburg’ scale 

The idea was not an original one. The award was planned as an analogy to the well known American Emmy awards, where a group of authoritative professionals reward their colleagues for their successes, rating them on the ‘Hamburg scale’ (based on Viktor Shklovsky’s tale about circus artists meeting behind closed doors once a year to determine rankings and who is best at what). Professionals voting for one or another project had to be able to show objectivity and honesty; they were voting for their fellow professionals, so the TEFI juries were usually drawn from previous winners, thus demonstrating both their competence and integrity. 

The first awards were given out in 1995, the winners receiving a heavy statuette designed by sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, showing Orpheus tearing open his breast and giving his heart to the people, an elegant symbol of the credo of both journalists and other professions who work with devotion for the good of society. The outright winner at the first ceremony was Rossiya, a new TV channel, which had smashed the monopoly of Central Television [of the USSR]. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, this station had promoted itself as the home of the new democratic values and a new kind of interaction with its viewers, one of equal partnership. 

In 1996, however, first place in the awards was taken by NTV, a pioneer in the post-Soviet independent television media (although it was later taken over by state-owned Gazprom). NTV had a simple but effective slogan - ‘The news is our profession’ - and until 2000 all the TEFI awards for news and current affairs went to journalists from this station. No one objected because it was generally considered that no other journalists were operating at the same level of professionalism. NTV was an innovative channel, basing itself on western TV; it was the first to standardise its broadcasts and to buy in non-essential products, rather than producing them in-house.  

In entertainment and education the clear winner was Channel 1, the successor to the above-mentioned Central Television of Soviet times, home of the conservative tradition in both news casting and high-quality non-news productions. Typically, this station received its awards for projects which had stood the test of time, many of them originating in the Soviet past. 

From the end of the 90s, some of the TEFI awards went to the Culture Channel for its productions. In short, Russian TV was structured and divided up between obvious leaders with a high reputation in the community, and outsiders with no such reputation. 

The new journalism 

But rules exist to be broken, as we know. To maintain the existing order, television needed its enfant terrible, who would make a point of showing just how amoral and cynical journalism can be. Enter, to considerable applause from his audience, Sergey Dorenko. During the election campaigns at the end of the 90s, he used all the tricks that had hitherto been off-limits for any journalist of standing. Right-minded members of the TV community were unanimous in criticising his lack of principles and somewhat affected cynicism, dubbing him the journalist whose hand one would refuse to shake, which snub only afforded him even greater pleasure. For some time he was the lone symbol of conscience-free, venal journalism. His venality was much discussed, including on live TV.

The situation started to change dramatically in 2000, with Putin’s arrival on the scene. All journalists were faced with the question of what to do: try to stand up for one’s own views and be sacked, or to change one’s views to fit in with the new situation and stay on air?

At the same time the advertising market was developing energetically. Channels started competing for ratings and, naturally, advertising revenue. Advertorials made their appearance i.e. hidden advertising, paid for by ‘grey’ money. Everyone in TV knew about this, but the main players, the TEFI award winners, initially tried to maintain their reputation as professionals. True, in 1996, politics entered the TV world, big time: all channels were compelled to sign a letter, promising to ignore the principle of journalistic impartiality and to make all possible efforts to support one candidate (Yeltsin) during his election campaign; at the same time fighting against his main opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the (at that time) still powerful Communist Party. The majority of TV journalists, however, willingly abandoned their professional objectivity because they sincerely believed that this would be beneficial for Russia and its future.

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The media environment in the early 1990s was more independent than perhaps at any other time in Russian history. With the arrival of Putin, Russian journalism has become a largely interest-driven venture, and its reputation has consequentially suffered. Image Creative Commons Flickr/ Rubén B. T.

Old vs new NTV 

The situation started to change dramatically in 2000, with Putin’s arrival on the scene. Clouds gathered over NTV, and all journalists working in news and current affairs were faced with the question of what to do: try to stand up for one’s own views and be sacked, or to change one’s views to fit in with the new situation and stay on air? The reputation issue worried many, and this problem very soon became acute, peaking at the time when the ‘old’ NTV was disbanded (2001). Everyone realised that the rules of the game had changed. Would the media community go along with this, and give in without a fight?  

To a considerable extent, the reaction depended on the behaviour of the NTV journalists, who had for many years portrayed themselves as a team of dedicated and impartial professionals. The survival of the NTV team, or its disbanding, would be the signal for the rest. Realising this, the government did everything it could to break the team up – and succeeded. The most prominent NTV journalists and presenters started writing to each other with accusations of betraying their former principles; and the more this carried on, the worse it got. Sergey Dorenko had by that time been kicked out of Channel 1; he promptly appeared live on an NTV programme to express his support for journalists from the disgraced station. The ensuing handshakes demonstrated to viewers and colleagues alike that the principle underlying the relationship was henceforth to be ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend;’ and that the concept of professional reputation was gone. Cynicism was now the normal mode of operation for a journalist. 

The reputation problem 

After that, the authorities made one more, very powerful, move to split the journalistic community. NTV journalists were moved over to TV-6, where they were effectively intruders, ousting existing members of staff and destroying their existing professional ethic. The final straw for professional journalistic authority and professional reputation was also dictated by circumstances: the old NTV journalists arrived at their new channel without any of their most commercially successful projects (mainly drama series) – because the rights to those had remained with the new NTV. Survival, then, came at a very high price. 

Without their archive, the former NTV journalists started showing Soviet films on TV-6, including films from the Stalinist era, which would previously have been unthinkable. But it was the newly arrived NTV journalists’ runaway commercial success – the reality show ‘Behind the Glass’, a Russian ‘Big Brother’ with the slogan ‘It’s no shame to peep!’ – which finally did for the age of reputations. This gave their colleagues carte blanche to preserve their positions on air (if they can do it, why can’t we all?). For the viewers it just meant that no one could be trusted, even (or particularly) journalists. 

Russian TV community no longer has any rules; cynicism is the norm and a TV presenter’s work is simply a commercial project.

Journalistic reputations had by now lost any value; the new slogan was ‘the end justifies the means.’ At its worst this meant some channels (especially NTV and Rossiya) were fielding special groups of journalists who concentrated on carrying out the political wishes of the authorities by quickly and efficiently inculcating some idea or other into the minds of the general public, often ruining the reputation of one or other politician, or civic rights movement; in effect, dishing the dirt. The motto of these journalists could now be said to be ‘cynicism is our profession.’ Often, though not always, the viewers of such programmes don’t know the names of the journalists behind them, because that kind of programme goes out without credits. But their colleagues do know who they are, and they are faced with a moral choice: if you make reasonably honest programmes, though they may abide by the rules of the game, can you really remain on that channel? The answer is almost always affirmative. Today, there is no shame in selling out. 

So the Russian TV community no longer has any rules; cynicism is the norm and a TV presenter’s work is simply a commercial project. This has naturally (and inevitably) destroyed the TV community. But, while the community as a whole may no longer have moral standards and goals, for the channels the aim is clear: commercial success, the best ratings possible and, consequently, high advertising revenue. The way to achieve this became clear as far back as 2000: keep away from politics (new channels are appearing with no news coverage or political programmes), or keep one’s ear to the ground, constantly reviewing the situation. In 2012 one of the best-known journalists stated his credo, now fairly typical for TV professionals: ‘One should not get seriously involved in anything one is writing about.’ 

TEFI today

These changes have entailed professional losses too. The search for new topics and funds no longer has any appeal, so the principles governing the selection of TEFI winners have suffered as well. Seeking out new topics has always been a hallmark of TV as a quality entertainment and informative platform, but commercial success in business depends on repetition, which is easier and more cost effective, which means endless repeats and the cloning of successful ideas, from channel to channel.

In 2012 one of the best-known journalists stated his credo, now fairly typical for TV professionals: ‘One should not get seriously involved in anything one is writing about.’ 

This could not but affect the TEFI awards. In its first years the professional assessment criteria and the winners were self-selecting, but now that the concept of ‘professional achievement’ has lost all meaning, the award no longer works as an incentive for the best journalists. Now it is the TV channels that are competing: the managers of ‘friendly’ TV stations come to an agreement about which programmes to vote for, to their mutual advantage; and their less politically adept opponents suddenly find themselves out in the cold. In 2006, this cartel voting system meant that one film ‘Water: the Great Mystery’, whose message is that water has thoughts and emotions, walked off with three of the statuettes. 

The organisers of TEFI were nevertheless worried, and so decided that the situation could be improved by moving from a closed voting system to an open one, so that academy members would be ashamed of their dishonesty in front of their colleagues. But it turned out even worse: past winners were even more prepared to demonstrate their loyalty to the management of their channel. The rules are once more being changed, but that won’t help either because the ‘offended’ TV channels are now walking away from TEFI one after the other. In February 2013 the President of the Television Academy announced that the awards would not take place, but this was such a clear sign that professional criteria had disappeared, that two hours later there was an announcement that the awards would actually take place, but after a breathing-space, to give channels time to think about them.

Today, the fate of Orpheus, tearing open his breast, is still unknown, as it is not clear to anybody how to select the best programmes for nominations, when no TV journalist trusts any of the others, and none of them trusts the academicians. The TV community, united only by cynicism and a total lack of moral fear that reputations might be lost, cannot turn the clock back, and start making honest and impartial selections. The ‘Hamburg scale’ will be back where it started - in the circus.

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(Thumbnail image: Creative Commons flickr/ autowitch)

 

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