Second childhood for Russian TV

Putin pushing pro-family measures; Disney Channel in works

Children's television is back on the agenda in Russia thanks to booming advertising sales that now are worth about $3 billion annually, plus the growth of niche channels and a helpful shove from the Kremlin.

More than a decade after former President Boris Yeltsin axed an educational channel to free up its frequency for independent station NTV, the decline of programming for children and young adults had begun to set off alarms.

Spurred by anxiety about Russia's dwindling population — experts predict that without a baby boom, within decades it could drop from 140 million today to less than 100 million — President Vladimir Putin is pushing through a host of pro-family measures, including championing kids' TV.

Speaking in December at a Kremlin meeting with population experts, Putin said that work on creating a designated channel on state television has been under way for the past year and that the project is nearing completion.

"The question of opening a children's channel has been studied by state television for a long while," Putin said recently at a Kremlin meeting. "In the near future, this work will be finished. A children's channel will appear on Russian television."

Last week, Anton Zlatopolsky, deputy head of Russia's state television and radio holding company VGTRK, confirmed that plans are advanced and that details will be announced "within a few months" about the size and nature of the project.

Additionally, the Walt Disney Co., which opened a Moscow movie distribution office in December, plans to launch a Russian-language version of its popular Disney Channel in the fall, which industry insiders said likely will air on cable or satellite. Satellite is growing at annual rates of about 30%.

In January, Yulia Poltorak, Disney's director of development in Russia, said the channel is going ahead but declined to go into detail after the story broke during an industry exposition in Moscow. Poltorak declined comment for this report.

Another company targeting the money-spinning potential of children's and youth programming is Prof-Media, the fast-growing media wing of oligarch Vladimir Potanin's industrial group Interros.

Prof-Media in the spring is launching a new 24-hour cartoon channel aimed at Russia's metropolitan 11-34 audience that at the lower end will take in older schoolchildren.

As Russia's first free-to-view animation channel, dubbed 2X2, it will go up against cable- and satellite-screened Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and eventually the Disney Russia channel.

Natalia Vashko, 2X2 general director, said the channel aims to capture 38% of Moscow's 12 million viewers in the target age group with a schedule of Russian animation.

The channel, which plans to spend $10 million-$15 million on programming and running costs in its first year, initially will be available to viewers in Moscow and its suburbs before rolling out to St. Petersburg.

With three major cartoon players on the market, Vashko said that Disney's Russian channel likely will air a greater mix of children's shows and movies in addition to animation.

"Starting its own channel in Russia will help the Disney brand become established in Russia and help promote sales of its products and licensed goods," Vashko said.