The Russian media industry is currently going through hard times. Federal channels have long ago moved away from fact-based journalism towards open propaganda in support of the government. The Russian authorities understand the power and potential of media all too well; they aim to consolidate all significant resources under their control, and close down independent media’s attempts to present an alternative view of the country and the world.
But it is not only federal channels that suffer, the regions are also under threat. Tomsk’s private regional television company TV-2 turned 24 last year, and is now facing permanent closure. TV-2 is not alone.
From legislative measures to indirect pressure via shareholders and founders, there are different ways to influence media, forcing some journalists to leave the profession, and, on occasion, to go ‘underground’.
In spring 2014, Galina Timchenko, the editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru (the most popular news portal in Russia at the time), was sacked at the request of the owner. Most of the Lenta.ru team followed Timchenko out the door; and their new project, the news aggregator Meduza, was launched in October 2014 in Riga, Latvia. Although Meduza is a worldwide news service, it remains a Russia-focused news service.
In January 2014, after a scandal broke out in connection with an online survey by independent TV station Dozhd’, many cable and satellite operators removed the channel from its packages. As a result, the very existence of the only critical TV channel in Russia came under threat. Now Dozhd broadcasts on a subscription basis via the internet.
Siberia’s media rush
The residents of Siberia’s university town are right to consider their city special, and, for a long time, the local press was another source of pride. At the start of the 2000s, Igor Yakovenko, then head of the Russian Federation Union of Journalists, described Tomsk’s situation as a ‘media anomaly’. But what is so special about Tomsk?
At the start of the 2000s, Tomsk experienced a real media boom. The quality and variety of print, radio, and television media was the envy of neighbouring regions. Ten years ago, a resident of Tomsk – a city of 500,000 – could choose between five or six local news bulletins, competing between one another on different channels. Newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels received professional awards, and several of them were recognised as the best regional media organisations in the country. And, finally, the relationship between Tomsk journalists and the local authorities turned out to be surprisingly open and transparent – something sorely lacking in other regions.
Ten years ago, a resident of Tomsk – a city of 500,000 – could choose between five or six local news bulletins
But all good things come to an end, and Tomsk’s media boom began to falter at the end of the 2000s. Print media began to close for obvious reasons – the expansion of the internet. For the television market from 2006 to 2011, the situation also changed substantially. Federal network channels – TNT, REN TV, STS – re-established relations with former partners in Tomsk, and re-organised them into local branches.
The federal network’s intervention cut in on local channels’ market share, even wiping it out completely. Moreover, during the late 2000s, Russian media discourse underwent a significant change, and a new generation of journalists with different priorities entered the profession.
TV-2 remained, for the most part, the only reminder of the industry’s former glory. Set up in 1990, the channel became part and parcel of everyday life in Tomsk.
Judging by viewing figures, TV-2 regularly found itself in the seven leading channels, breathing down the necks of federal networks. TV-2’s own news programme (Chas pik) and morning channel frequently outpaced federal channels in viewing figures. More broadly, TV-2’s share of the 18+ age band, in 2012-2014, came to 3.82%. In comparison, REN TV – a federal channel – took 4.33% in the same age band.
Over its 24 years of service, TV-2 has received an unprecedented (for a regional channel) 22 TEFI awards from the Russian Academy of Television – the highest award available.
But apart from recognition by viewers, TV-2 has also been successful commercially. Total earnings from television advert sales in Tomsk reached approximately 250m roubles (£2.5m) in 2014, of which 40m roubles (£400,000) went to TV-2 – far higher than any individual federal channel.
In addition to its commercial success, TV-2 was also a public broadcaster. Under difficult circumstances, one could ‘ring into TV-2’ in search of justice or action from the authorities or local service. Aside from informative programmes, the channel also produced high-quality entertainment.
‘TV-2 held out so long in an environment that is increasingly hostile to a free press for several reasons,’ explains the editor-in-chief Viktor Muchnik. ‘In the first place, our economic model was market-oriented. Our main source of income was always advertising revenues. We had a very strong sales record, and our contracts with the state did not interfere with our independence. This situation allowed us a certain amount of freedom when it came to editorial policy. Secondly, we wanted this kind of editorial policy, and the people who worked here shared those moral values. Thirdly, we made a name for ourselves, and this made it harder to put pressure on us. Fourthly, we had a certain amount of understanding with the local authorities. Yes, the former governor Viktor Kress would get angry with us for certain stories, but he still understood that Tomsk needed this kind of TV station. And lastly – and this is the most important – we had our own audience; loyal, large, and varied. This audience gave us our commercial success and our political independence.’
Off the air
On 19 April 2014, TV-2 suddenly went off the air. The cause was technical: the feeder unit, which transfers electromagnetic waves from the source to the antenna, broke down. This malfunction was foreseeable – the unit was installed back in 1968.
On 21 April 2014, Tomsk’s regional radio-television broadcast centre informed TV-2 about the causes of the malfunction as well as its intention to replace the broken unit before 15 July.
‘Our offer to buy and deliver a feeder ourselves was refused. This could have been done in a couple of days,’ says Muchnik. ‘They didn’t present us with a repair schedule. The company broadcasts only via cable, and we were losing advertising contracts. We began to suspect that the sticking point wasn’t the malfunction. Gradually these suspicions were confirmed as our sources got in touch, but for the time being we kept shtum.’
A month after the feeder broke down, TV-2 received a warning from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal press watchdog. The break in broadcasting was a violation of licence conditions, and so grounds for TV-2’s licence to be revoked. Roskomnadzor ordered that broadcast be resumed before 20 May 2014; as a result, the TV station found itself in a bureaucratic trap.
‘It turned out that one state body, RTRS [Russian Television and Radio Network – the state monopoly on communications provision], was dragging its heels on restoring us to the air, and another, Roskomnadzor, wasn’t. But it wasn’t threatening the local broadcasting service with revoking their licence, but the TV station. We decided to go public with the conflict, and went to court,’ Muchnik comments.
‘Pickets and demonstrations in support of TV-2 began in Tomsk. The scandal broke all over Russia. Colleagues and a few political bodies came out in our support. And after all of that, the feeder suddenly started working a few days later.’
The story with TV-2 took an unexpected turn at the very end of 2014. In the autumn, the TV station applied to extend its broadcast licence, which was due to end on 8 February 2015, and received confirmation of a ten-year extension from Roskomnadzor.
However, at the end of November, TV-2 received another letter from RTRS. This letter stated that the current contract for broadcast services was cancelled, with effect from 1 January 2015.
‘Our behaviour in the spring figured as a cause. According to RTRS, by going public with the conflict, we “offended” them,’ says Muchnik. ‘Roskomnadzor then proceeded to inform us that the order to extend TV-2’s licence was, so to speak, a “computer malfunction”’.
Indeed, the official press release published on the website of the Tomsk branch of RTRS states that ‘providing services in broadcasting television and radio in all the Russian regions, RTRS respects and values each of its partner broadcasters […] But in this case, and we are confident in this, the management of TV-2 has exceeded the boundaries of what is permissible between business partners.’
Cancelling the contract with RTRS signals an end to operations at TV-2. Without access to analogue networks, it could continue to broadcast on cable networks, but when the licence agreement runs out, it will lose the ability to broadcast. And so once again the Tomsk channel found itself between a rock and a hard place.
A rearguard action
On the verge of shutting down, TV-2 began an intensive support campaign in Tomsk. Complaints about RTRS’ actions were sent to official bodies – the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, General Prosecutor’s Office, the Union of Journalists, as well as human rights and business organisations. The Mayor of Tomsk and the regional governor also received requests to intervene in the situation.
In December, Tomsk saw numerous demonstrations in support of TV-2. Around 4,000 people came out to defend TV-2 in temperatures of -16°C. While Moscow also saw a protest in support of the TV station, more than 20,000 signatures were collected in support of the channel.
However, neither appeals to official bodies, nor protests had any effect. Overnight, on 31 December, the Tomsk regional broadcast centre took TV-2 off air.
In December 2014, Tomsk residents came out in freezing temperatures to defend TV-2. (c) Anna Fofanova.
For Viktor Muchnik, ‘the actions of RTRS are a direct violation of anti-monopoly legislation. But we will have to prove that in the courts. It takes a long time. Meanwhile, analogue broadcasting was cut off on 1 January, and on 8 February, TV-2 will stop broadcasting on cable when its licence runs out. As a result, the channel will be destroyed. Our team has already been informed of the cuts. A minimum of 100 people will lose their jobs. Of course, TV-2 will not disappear from the airwaves completely. We have a website, and we intend to develop it further. We will try to work with crowd-funding, grants, and subscriptions. We will develop our online sales. But we can’t keep the team as it was with these resources. With digital media in the regions, you can maintain a team of 10-15 people. Most people are going to have find a new job.’
The future of regional television networks is murky, at best. Independent editorial policy is going to be a thing of the past. If even a strong regional channel such as TV-2 is forced to close very quickly under bureaucratic pressure, then what will happen to others? Especially under the current economic conditions, and the contraction of the Russian television market – down between 5-7% since 2013.
Preserving TV-2, its workforce, and paying wages is a priority. And, of course, the ability to ‘negotiate’ with the authorities is also a necessary part of doing business. In these pressurised conditions, however, the regional press is likely to become yet another tool of the authorities.
Standfirst image via tv2.tomsk.ru.