October 12, 2000 09:24am
Russian TV Tries Naked Newscasts
by: Angela Charlton
(MOSCOW) -- Russia's successful television producers fall into two categories: the brainy or the zany.
The brainy ones court Russia's large educated class with full-length, commercial-free operas and such programs as ``Apocrypha,'' a biweekly discourse on the lives of classical authors.
The zany ones aim elsewhere. As in ``Naked Truth,'' a newscast in all ways normal - except the anchorwoman sometimes strips while she reports the day's events. The reporters go topless when covering parliament. And the weather forecaster strokes her bare breasts as she predicts light rain.
Producers say they had to choose between these two paths, the highbrow and the out-there, to stay afloat amid the flood of formulaic imported soap operas and cop serials that clogged Russia's airwaves in the 1990s.
The strategy appears to be working: Many Russian shows are squeezing out foreign rivals in the ratings. While financial and political troubles linger, critics say post-Soviet Russian television is coming into its own.
Viewers rejoiced over the end of bland, censored communist programming in the early 1990s. They embraced 10-year-old episodes of the U.S. soap ``Santa Barbara'' and tawdrier Brazilian and Mexican counterparts.
Russian producers lacked the experience and money to compete. Then after Russia's 1998 financial crisis, many networks had to drop popular foreign serials because they were too expensive.
``Suddenly the Russian producers had a chance to prove themselves,'' said Andrei Milekhin, director of the NISPI ratings agency.
Many of the resulting shows are as vulgar and violent as their imported counterparts, but with a twist, like ``Naked Truth.''
The show's anchorwoman, Ukrainian actress Svetlana Pesotskaya, reads real items from the week's news. Then her clothes start to come off. Or her colleagues start stripping around her while she grimly announces the parliament has refused to raise the minimum wage.
Russian politicians cheerily agree to be interviewed by the show's young, nude female reporters. Gazing awkwardly at the camera or the wall, lawmakers expound on land reform and budget debates. They are spared tough questions, as the ``reporters'' are mostly professional strippers.
``They just want to talk. Politics itself is a striptease,'' said Sergei Moskvin, the show's creator and director of Moscow's channel M-1. With this and the channel's other satirical shows, Moskvin says he's pointing out the absurdity of the news itself.
``We need to wake up the viewers, to do things differently,'' he said, chain-smoking as he bounced around his downtown office.
For the bloodthirsty, Russia's true-crime and disaster shows are a feast. Shows like ``Road Patrol'' and ``Commando TV'' far outdo foreign counterparts in quantity of weapons, blood, charred flesh and shots of accident victims in agony waiting for Russia's scandalously scarce ambulances to arrive.
Not everyone finds that appetizing. For more refined fare, viewers tune into the Kultura network.
The state-owned channel was created by the Culture Ministry in 1997 to counter vulgarity and violence elsewhere on the dial. It has resurrected what many Russians remember as the good part of Soviet TV - classic Russian films, performances by the renowned Bolshoi and Mariinsky theater companies.
Kultura has suffered some critical ribbing for some of its homegrown shows, like ``Basket-weaving.'' But intellectuals, writers and artists cheer the channel's concept.
``For years we lavished money on the arts, and now there is nothing. We are trying to appreciate all that was produced and striving to repeat that,'' said Kultura spokeswoman Alla Kolebab.
Another successful show targeting Russia's thinkers is the 26-year-old ``What, Where, When?'' a cerebral trivia show that in Soviet times offered its contestants hard-to-find books instead of prize money.
The year 2000 version of the show is held in a casino and broadcast live on the Internet. Contestants dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns sit around a roulette table and answer a barrage of challenging questions on philosophy and history while the camera darts about dizzyingly.
Producers of ``What, Where, When?'' and other old favorites had to upgrade to retain viewers, but have also worked hard to retain their Russian-ness.
The sheer number of Russian shows, compared with just a few years ago, is staggering.
``You may not like them all,'' Milekhin said, ``but you can't say there's nothing to watch.''