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Don’t be afraid to turn on the TV!

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Most Russian TV outlets are kept under tight Kremlin control.  TV Rain, an independent cable channel, has navigated many rapids in its short existence, but is nonetheless still operating.  Natalya Sindeyeva describes her vision to Mumin Shakirov and Zygmunt Dzieciolowski.

Natalya Sindeyeva Mumin Shakirov Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
21 April 2013

ZDZ: I hear from all my friends that TV Rain is the only independent channel in Russia and each time I turn it on, I can see my friends are right.  I was watching your programmes yesterday and saw that you really do have something which no one else has. The well-known opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, announced that at the next election he would stand for the post of president of Russia. What is striking is that all the mass media outlets under Kremlin control give detailed accounts of Navalny’s crimes (embezzlement, theft of timber and party funds), though they prefer to keep quiet about his presidential ambitions, as they do about his battle with corruption and thieving in the higher echelons of government. 

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Natalya Sindeyeva, founder and general director of TV Rain: 'I never had anything to do with politics because I realised that I didn't understand it and it was dirty'. Photo (cc) Zimmermann666. Some rights reserved

NS: Any media outlet would want to capture a newsmaker like him with an announcement of this kind. We jumped straight in at the top of the Yandex citation ratings. Whether this will make problems with the government for us I don’t know, but it’s already gone out and it was live.

An independent channel: the beginnings

ZDZ: I first heard about your station when well-known people started doing readings from the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Whose idea was that and what did it achieve?

NS: It was the idea of our creative producer and director Vera Krichevskaya, co-founder with me of the station. We liked the unbelievable simplicity of the idea, but we didn’t realise what effect it would have. It transpired that no one had read the Constitution, so there was an element of education in the readings as well as the ideological message we had planned.

'Our original idea was basically incorporated in two slogans: ‘Don’t be afraid to turn on the TV’, addressed to those people who had stopped watching television because they no longer trusted it.' Natalya Sindeyeva

ZDZ: And it turned out that life in today’s Russia actually contradicts the Constitution.

NS: Which is why the project rattled so many cages. You discover things that are obvious: Article 31 talks of the freedom of assembly etc, but you understand that every article of the Constitution which was read out is being flouted by our state.

MS: TV Rain was launched 3 years ago. Russian TV audiences have a surfeit of options: there are 6 nationwide federal channels, 10 ultra high frequency channels and satellite TV with multiple digital channels. But you decided on a bold venture – to launch TV Rain. What idea were you offering your audience to occupy your own place in the field?

NS: Our original idea was basically incorporated in two slogans: ‘Don’t be afraid to turn on the TV’, addressed to those people who had stopped watching television because they no longer trusted it.  The second was ‘Give TV one more chance’, continuing the same idea. But if we look a bit further, then I was in radio for 15 years so I understood how the media market works.  My ‘Silver Rain’ was a success, because we managed to create a radio station for the top end of that market, quality, and it became a commercial success. I then wanted to take the idea further and when I started thinking about what I might do, I realised I no longer watched TV. That was my first incentive – that I didn’t find any of the channels interesting. I realised there were quite a few people who had, like me, stopped watching…

ZDZ: I like another of your slogans, ‘For those who care’.

NS: I can’t stay on the sidelines and I surround myself with others who feel the same. I am also guided by the idea that if you can do something to bring about change, then you should do it. I hate idle chatter; I don’t do small talk and don’t like talking in public, but I know I have to carve out a place for myself to change something inside me. I don’t have much to do with politics, but I worry about my life: I want my children to grow up here, in Russia, so I want things to change in my surroundings. You’ve probably read Vaclav Havel’s article ‘The power of the powerless’.  When the country’s media are dominated by lies, any truth becomes an opposition and opposition channels develop out of that, as it were.

So I thought, why not give it a go? A good, quality audience could make good business. The central TV channels can’t compete because I work with a different segment of the public, another audience, and there wasn’t one cable channel which would have taken me or my potential audience on. It was a free niche – for people who want to keep abreast of the news without watching terrestrial TV. I didn’t have a developed concept of the format, just a few words defining the ideological goals I was aiming for: openness, sincerity, honesty and caring.

MS: Did you have a business plan showing when you should break even and when you would start making a profit?

'It was a free niche – for people who want to keep abreast of the news without watching terrestrial TV. I didn’t have a developed concept of the format, just a few words defining the ideological goals I was aiming for: openness, sincerity, honesty and caring.' Natalya Sindeyeva 

NS: We had consultants who told us what sort of a budget we needed to recover our costs in the non-terrestrial cable sector; we didn’t have a business plan, just an understanding of how much money I had and how much I would need to set up the channel.

MS: So it was pure opportunism?

NS: I wrote my first business plan two years later, when I realised what sort of budget we might have and how to put it together. I also understood how much content I needed.  My intuition let me down on two points only: how long it would take me to achieve my goals and when we might break even. I thought it would be quicker. Our model is economic and we are very rational: the station operates with half what would be considered the necessary amount of staff. But I can’t just stop, because we need to launch new projects and the only way forward is to make them bigger, so advertisement sales will never catch up. That gap is what’s most difficult for me at the moment.

MS: Your channel is currently the only provider of alternative information across the whole of Russian TV. The purge of the news space has made outsiders of you, marginalised you, if you like, so you probably bear the full brunt of the government’s displeasure.  Can you stand up to it?

NS: We certainly do, though it has to be said that the government has learnt a lesson or two.  At the beginning we were an irritant simply because they didn’t understand us, then we suddenly attained the rank of a federal channel when President Medvedev came to talk to us. After that he invited our chief editor to an interview in the Kremlin alongside top journalists from the 4 central channels. It was a mega-success for a digital channel.  At the beginning of the events of December 2011, we were under very considerable pressure from above: telephone calls, scare tactics and persuasion.  But I managed to shake them all off, making no compromises while preserving my dignity and not falling out with them. Some kind of feminine wiles, if you like.

ZDZ: But your opponents turn on to the station and see you ‘taking them apart’, if you’ll pardon the expression, and feminine wiles often simply inflame a situation.

'The government is not sitting idly by, but trying to use finance to put the screws on us: we know that some of our advertisers have been told they shouldn’t advertise with us so they take fright and don’t.' Natalya Sindeyeva

NS: But I’m not putting two fingers up to them behind their backs or trying to bring the government down and they understand that. I want to build a successful business and have found myself an empty niche which could be commercially viable. I’ve given it everything: money, my life and my family, who don’t see me any more because I’m at work all the time. It’s all mine and no one can tell me what to do, which has made it possible for me to keep going. Anyway, to their way of thinking our audience is not big enough for them to take us too seriously. But this makes for an internal contradiction: on the one hand I have an interest in growing our audience, but on the other, the situation could very well change if it gets bigger.  There’s another tricky point too.  The government is not sitting idly by, but trying to use finance to put the screws on us: we know that some of our advertisers have been told they shouldn’t advertise with us so they take fright and don’t.

MS: Strong pressure?

NS: Hard to say. I don’t know how many advertisers have been rung up, but it’s hard for us to sell space.  We sell direct, not via telesales, whose resources in the media market are huge and they have good contacts with the Kremlin. I don’t mean monsters like Video International or Gazprom Media, though they could help us to earn more.  We are currently developing a new strategy related to moving over to paid content, which would be a new source of income alongside the advertising.  I think it will make us more stable, though it does mean our viewers will have to shell out.

MS: Is this something they will mind doing?

NS: Well, it won’t be easy. From the feedback and the comments I can see that 70% of readers are not prepared to pay. But if we don’t crack the problem, then we’ll never get anywhere. I think the market will sooner or later reach that point anyway.

Citizen Poet

MS: You say you’re rolling out the situation, but some of your past decisions have been rated as negative.  Closing down the ‘Citizen Poet’ project, for instance.

ZDZ: Your viewers were thrilled with it: hundreds of thousands watched and listened to the extremely popular actor Mikhail Yefremov reading Dmitry Bykov’s satirical poetry written in the style of well known Russian poets and writers. Satire had not been such a success in Russia for a long time.  It was openly making fun of the government, and of individual politicians.

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Leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny declared his intention to run for the Russian presidency on TV Rain earlier this April. Other mass media outlets have focussed on the government's embezzlement charges against Navalny while ignoring his presidential announcement. Photo (cc) Mitya Aleshkovskiy. Some rights reserved 

NS: When we launched the project we had no idea what would come of it. The only thing we asked of the authors was to refrain from ad hominem comments.  Everything relating to people’s public images or their work was permissible, but personal references i.e. height, appearance, family relationships were off limits. The fifth scandalous poem was appalling, completely beyond the pale, humiliating the person almost, if you’ll forgive me, ridiculing the size of one particular part of his anatomy.   I said ‘We’re not going to broadcast this! Change it or cut it, then it might be OK!’  We started cutting the text without informing Dmitry Bykov who had gone to America. Then, one by one, everyone starting losing their nerve: information leaked, there was talk of censorship at TV Rain and a mega-row. The producer of ‘Citizen Poet’, Andrei Vasilyev, took a unilateral decision to close it down.  Two hours later I was told that he had sold the project to our competitor, the channel ‘Live’, owned by the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Some time later, when emotions were calmer and the row had died down, I understood the cynicism of the situation.  Why did I lose that particular battle? Because Vasilyev had a buyer.  Then President Medvedev came on our station and everything fell into place, although the two incidents were unrelated. In short, the project was closed.

MS: You actually did something quite unusual by ringing up President Medvedev’s Press Secretary, Natalia Timakova, and asking her to edit the text.

NS: Timakova and I have been friends for years.  When, early on in our TV life, a call from Vladislav Surkov (then deputy head of the Presidential Administration) got us taken off the air, we spent 6 months trying to work out what was going on.  At that time Timakova advised me how I might proceed. So, presented with the Bykov poem, I rang her up and asked her for advice. I wouldn’t do that again, but it was part of a steep learning curve.

Censorship

ZDZ: It seems to me that censorship is a given in the daily life of every Russian TV station. Journalists like Svetlana Sorokina, Leonid Parfyonov, Yevgeniy Kiselyov and Savik Shuster are banned from appearing on the leading federal channels.  Isn’t that censorship? 

NS: 80% of the time it’s self-censorship.  The federal channels have a list.  I haven’t seen it but I can imagine 2 or 3 of the names on it, and the rest would be self-censorship.  Sorokina, as I’m sure you know, was invited on to Alexander Rodnyansky’s St Petersburg 5th Channel…and what happened? After two appearances she was stood down.  There were no telephone calls, just that she was so aggressive and full-on that they wondered why they had set up such problems for themselves, and took her off.

MS: There’s internal censorship and, of course, the government censors.

'80% of the time it’s self-censorship.  The federal channels have a list.  I haven’t seen it but I can imagine 2 or 3 of the names on it, and the rest would be self-censorship.' Natalya Sindeyeva

NS: 100%! I don’t know how they’re described in staff lists, but the federal channels all have their censors.  I was shown their offices at the media corporation VGTRK [All Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting], where they check everything and make the necessary changes. What did I learn from the incident of the Bykov poem?  It wasn’t the row about what could be shown on TV, but something else – if you’ve decided to do something, then it has to be without any internal anxieties, or any justifications.  That was the second lesson. The third? Well, we’re currently running clips for the new Bykov-Yefremov-Vasilyev project called ‘The Good Citizen’, which came back to TV Rain in March. We run 5 clips a week.  I’ve told myself that I’m not going to worry that someone mightn’t like something, but still, I have feelings like anyone else. We’ve been over the rules again and I’ll look at the programmes after they’ve gone out.  Let the lawyers have a look: if they’re not bothered, then it’s full steam ahead.

ZDZ: When you invite Leonid Parfyonov on to TV Rain, it’s also some kind of gesture because he hasn’t been seen on air for a long time, but is still very popular with the viewers. It’s not only giving a professional the opportunity to do some work, but a kind of declaration that you are prepared to offer support to people who have been blacklisted.

NS: Honestly speaking, that’s part, but not all, of the motivation for so doing. Parfyonov is a talented journalist and it’s a real shame that no one gets to see him. I really value him, but if the Foundation for the Support of Independent Television doesn’t manage to put together the money, then we shan’t be able to continue the project with him.  It won’t be a political decision, simply economics.

Early life

ZDZ: Do you know about the Soviet dissident tradition or, possibly, any former dissidents? 

NS: No, I’ve never had anything to do with that.

ZDZ: What about a name like Andrey Sakharov?

NS: Of course. It may sound strange that the Director General of TV Rain has always been quite far removed from all that. I grew up in the small provincial town of Michurinsk (Tambov region) and there were never any of those kinds of discussions at home.

ZDZ: What did your parents do?

NS: My father was a military doctor.  He travelled all over the country, so I lived with my grandparents, who were wonderful people. I remember crying when Brezhnev died and thinking that everyone else would be crying too.  I was a Young Pioneer and a member of the Komsomol.

ZDZ: How did you get to Moscow?

NS: When I finished school, I was going to go to university in St Petersburg.  I had met all the professors and wanted to study at the psychology faculty. But when I did my last exam, I realised that if I went away, my grandparents would die; they’d set themselves to bring up their granddaughter, so when she finished school, they were free to go, as it were.  The 3 of us had lived together and this was an adult decision.  I went to the teacher training institute in Michurinsk, though my grandparents had given me their blessing to go away.

ZDZ: You qualified as a primary school teacher and immediately left for Moscow?

NS: I had always felt constrained in Michurinsk, though I was among the leaders at school and in the institute. I arrived in Moscow and within a week had realised that this was the city for me, as if I’d always lived there. No one would ever believe that I wasn’t a Muscovite, because I didn’t have an accent or any provincial complexes.  I never tried to conceal where I had come from and why. I wanted to get into show business.

ZDZ: You started by selling Italian clothes…

NS: …which was very boring, though it did mean I could earn good money.  But my whole path was always directed towards show business.  I worked on a TV project, then in radio and that was interesting.  My husband, whom I married 7 years ago, put it succinctly when he said ‘I married a glamour puss.’  ‘The Silver Shoe’ [a prize established by Sindeyeva at Silver Rain radio], parties, the radio… I was always putting on big shows, because I loved doing it, but I never had anything to do with politics because I realised that I didn’t understand it and it was somehow dirty. My lack of indifference was what brought me to what I’m doing now.  Until now I’ve been very careful not to give political judgements and I try to avoid the subject, because I’m no great specialist.

Optimistic channel

“Optimistic” in the name of the channel doesn’t mean that it is going talk only about purely good news. 

ZDZ:  What do you think of the elections to the Opposition Coordinating Council? It was, after all, your station that gave the candidates a platform to promote their ideas.

NS: A little healthy cynicism here. Think about it: Murdoch didn’t set up Fox TV because he was a fanatical supporter of the Republicans.  He saw a niche. It all came together for me; I simply couldn’t do anything I don’t want to, like working for an exclusively female audience, for instance.  It just fitted in with my values and the prospective business model. If I was told that if I change my values I would have a mega business strategy, I wouldn’t be able to, because I wouldn’t know how. I’m not the kind of business person who’s prepared to go for anything.

ZDZ: But life in Moscow teaches one that if you want to be successful, you have to play by the rulebook.

Working principles

NS: If I found myself in a situation where I either had to do something or everything would be taken away from me, then I’d have to refuse, because I wouldn’t be able to do it.  But I certainly do have the ability to compromise. Luckily I’ve never been in a tight spot where I had to make a difficult choice – except, of course, that poem, but that was my emotion rather than a compromise. I haven’t joined the system, but that’s just because I want to preserve my equilibrium. 

MS: On your channel people say what they think, which means there’s always the threat of running into conflict.

'I feel intuitively that Russia does have a special role and mission, that something will happen and our lives will start to change.' Natalya Sindeyeva

NS: But as soon as they break a law, they’re told ‘thanks very much and good night!’  I take them down off the site etc. If tomorrow one of our journalists were to say that s/he was in favour of legalising guns – that’s not a value I share and I’m against it, so I would ask him/her not to talk about this on TV.  But there aren’t so many things like that and people that come to work here on the whole share common values.

Rumours were circulating at one point, which were subsequently voiced to me by Konstantin Ernst (head of the federal Channel 1).  He said  ‘You’re like Irena Lisnevskaya [founder of REN TV] who’s done all she could to sell the channel dear.  If you do the same, you’ll achieve it.’ But that’s not what I’m doing it for!  I don’t need lots of money, nor for the channel to recoup its costs and start earning a profit. Like any entrepreneur, I have ambitions to build a big business, for which I shall probably need a partner to help me develop, but that’s another matter.

MS: Are you psychologically prepared for defeat?

NS: No.  I shan’t allow myself to be put in a situation where all’s up with me, so I have to play politics and sell. I shall do all I can to ensure there’s a business to be run, whether it’s with a partner, or not. If audience interests were to change tomorrow, and we don’t know what’ll happen, but say everything suddenly changed and people start telling us that they’re fed up with our politics, then I can absolutely accept that we might re-arrange our content and start doing, I don’t know, social projects, say. But while what we do is needed, then we’ll go on developing it.

And now?

ZDZ: What’s your gut feeling about the future of Russia in the next few years? 

NS: Why have I dug my heels in and kept fighting? I feel intuitively, however pompous it may sound, that Russia does have a special role and mission, that something will happen and our lives will start to change. I so remember the 90s.  How I loved that time – I was on fire!  We all were and we were so proud to be living in Russia.  Now I have a sort of hope that something will happen and those feelings will come back again.  But for the last 6 months, everything the government has done (including the laws) demotivates me and I start to doubt. Before that I used to think, well OK, I’ll get through and things will change, so I still don’t let my doubts really develop.

ZDZ: A new generation has grown up, which feels it wants to make a contribution to life in Russia. Does it have a chance? Or do you feel that the government is entrenched, the system stable and the government elite has interests that have to be protected?  And the resources for protecting them do exist.

NS: My head is rational and tells me that in the near future nothing good will happen here. But my heart and soul don’t want to accept that, because that would mean I would have to stop everything I’m doing. I really hope that things will change.

 

PS.

openDemocracy Russia will be running two roundtables at the Perugia Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy on 26/27 April. For more details, visit: journalismfestival.com .

Founder and general director of TV Rain Natalya Sindeyeva will be taking part in the panel discussion on  Russia's protest movement and the media

Founding editor of oD Russia Zygmunt Dzieciolowski will be taking part in the panel discussion on Russia’s Investigative journalism.

 

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