Russia's Small-Screen Makeover
Obsessed with the Internet and social networking, young Russian viewers are abandoning TV. Now, local broadcasters look to lure them back with edgy content -- but is it too late?
It's 8 p.m., and Ilya Nikolayev, a Moscow state university student, is logging on to the Internet. Instead of watching the new Russian TV shows designed with him in mind, the 21-year-old prefers Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.
"I can get everything I need online," he says. "Links to music tracks, videos, shows, anything. And I can get access to all that whenever I want to, so I don't really watch television much these days."
Nikolayev's attitude is similar to that of millions of young Russians. It's a change that's sounding alarms within the country's TV sector, which is easily the largest and most profitable in Eastern Europe ($4.2 billion spent on TV ads in 2010). The decline in viewers is now leading Russia's biggest broadcasters to shake up programming in an effort to lure coveted younger viewers away from their laptops. It's a subject that will surely be front and center during a Focus on Russia sidebar at MIPCOM.
During the past year, fewer Russians have been watching TV. According to media research group TNS Russia, from January to August 2011, 67.8 percent of the population age 4 and up watched television, down from 69 percent during the same period in 2010. (An estimated 95 percent of Americans watch TV.) Among the coveted 18-to-25 Russian demographic, the drop was an even more alarming 2.6 percent. It doesn't help matters that the Russian population is shrinking, making for fewer people to target in the most important demographic.
"Younger people don't read papers and watch very little TV," says Konstantin Maksimyuk, creative director at market research company Novy Internet. "Television is for lazy and tired people, while the active and young choose the Internet as it gives them more interactive opportunities."
According to TNS, an estimated 25 million Russians -- 17.5 percent of the population of 143 million -- use social network websites. Russia's handful of main national TV channels are protected from a full online onslaught as Internet penetration in far-flung regions lags behind that of main free-to-air channels. But when the Internet catches up, the decline of traditional TV might become more significant.
Channels including Rossiya 1 and Rossiya 2, run by state-owned broadcaster VGTRK, say they have nothing to worry about, but the country's biggest TV network, Channel One, admits that its programming models are out of touch with contemporary Russian viewers.
"You can't remain enthralled to outdated stereotypes," says Konstantin Ernst, general director of Channel One. "The television model, which effectively worked for 15 years, has deteriorated, broken down and exhausted itself. There is a need for new formats."
Blue-chip dramas like CSI and Dexter are popular in Russia, but international reality formats such as Survivor, Big Brother and American Idol thrive. This helps explain why Russian programmers are targeting audiences with a mix of comedy and variety shows.
Channel One is fighting to keep the viewers it has while reaching out to those it has never targeted. Beginning in 2012, the channel will switch its preferred demographic from 18-plus to 14-to-59 and offer targeted fare for age slivers within that bracket.
Among the programs aiming for younger audiences are Channel One's edgy sketch-comedy shows Big Difference, Personality Cartoon and Yesterday Live, all of which feature irreverent content designed to compete with popular online fare like the website Funny or Die.
Responding to the social networking buzz, by which foreign series generate more chatter than domestic fare, the station also has launched the late-night block Urban Hipsters, which will feature foreign series popular among Russian Internet audiences. Slated to run in that slot are Showtime's The Borgias and Californication, AMC's Mad Men and Fox's Terra Nova.
In addition, Channel One hopes to entice younger viewers with the provocative Crash Course on Happy Life. Revolving around young, urban women, it is directed by Valeriya Gay Germanika, known for her teen-targeted show School, which shocked Russia's conservative viewers with its unflattering depiction of contemporary Moscow teenagers.
Even channels with older audiences are acknowledging competition from the Internet. Ren TV, which targets viewers ages 35-to-45, has launched a website that allows viewers to watch the channel in real time and create their own programming. They only pay for shows they watch.
"It's not really about opposition between television and the Internet," says Alexander Nechayev, deputy director general and programming director at NTV. "It's just another way of accessing the same content."
Indeed, some Russian programmers see the growing popularity of online entertainment as more of an opportunity than a threat.
"Television and the Internet will turn from competitors to partners, and work toward that end is actively in progress," says Vyacheslav Murugov, chief content officer at CTC Media and head of CTC Channel.
Ultimately, it will be for Russian viewers to decide whether that model works for them. "That would be probably fun," says Nikolayev. "I mean, watching stuff and discussing it with friends in real time? But will it be considered television? I would still say it would be online stuff, and I would prefer to be doing it on my computer."
MIPCOM 2011: Focus on Russia
When: Oct. 3-6
RUSSIA'S TOP FIVE SHOWS: Hoping to crack the Russian market during MIPCOM? Local audiences prefer reality shows to scripted
Let Them Talk: A talk show hosted by charismatic Andrey Malakhov, this Oprah-like program looks at day-to-day issues affecting average Russians, including crime, drugs, prostitution, family problems, migration and interethnic relations.
Let's Get Married: A dating show on which a man or woman has dates with three potential partners and must pick one, with the benefit of advice from family and friends present in the studio.
Confessions: A documentary show on which each episode focuses on a particular crime being investigated. In the past, Confessions has been criticized for exposing too many details about the private lives of its subjects.
Big Races: The domestic version of the international hit Intervilles, produced by France's Mistral Productions, this game show features teams representing various countries who compete by performing increasingly absurd tasks.
A Minute of Fame: Dreams Come True: A reality show on which participants compete for the opportunity to make their dreams -- which can consist of anything from meeting a celebrity to marrying an oligarch -- become reality.