Opportunity knocks in Russian TV: Benjamin Woolley reports on efforts to clean up a pirate's paradise

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The Independent Online
JUDGE Mikhail Fedotov is on a mission from President Boris Yeltsin. Appointed at the end of last year as Russia's minister for press and information, his job is to create what could turn out to be one of the world's largest and most active media markets.

What he has to offer are conditions unavailable anywhere else in the world - an almost complete absence of regulation; a vast, educated audience that hungers for Western culture but is still innocent of Western marketing's persuasive powers; a long-standing enthusiasm for cinema-going and a ready-made five-channel television network. And all at a bargain price.

In Russia's media, everything is cheap, most spectacularly advertising; the price of a 30-second prime-time weekend slot on Channel 1, with a potential audience of 70 million households, is about pounds 2,000. 'This is the new frontier,' said Bruce Macdonald, head of the BBDO advertising agency's Moscow office. 'Nobody anywhere in the world, industry after industry, and certainly not in television, should be missing this opportunity.'

It was little more than a year ago that the Russian media were still, officially at least, organs of the state. Private newspapers and television channels were illegal. Advertising was unheard of, except as a means of shifting a surplus of state-produced goods. Even the concept of intellectual property, the very basis of any media market, simply did not exist. Art, as Lenin said, belonged to the people. When the Communist regime fell, the effect on the media was almost instant. As centralised authority collapsed, the television and press fragmented, with no legal framework or policy in place to regulate the ensuing chaos.

Although still almost entirely state-run, Ostankino and Russian Television, the two main TV channels that emerged from the debris of the old state monopoly, now carry advertising and are free to show more or less anything they like. Yet they are constantly subjected to political meddling and are widely regarded in Russia as being riddled with corruption. In addition, the country has become a pirate's paradise, a problem that first emerged with the introduction of perestroika. It became so bad that in June 1991 the Motion Picture Association of America decided to slap an embargo on the export of its films to CIS states.

The resulting shortage of Western material, combined with a complete lack of legal protection, created the perfect conditions for Russia's new generation of entrepreneurs. They wasted no time in saturating the streets with VHS copies of mainstream Hollywood movies. They also do a brisk trade with the growing number of home-brew channels that have colonised the cable networks set up to pipe state TV direct into city apartment blocks.

The source of this material is the network of markets that are to be found on the outskirts of most big Russian cities. Low-key affairs - no larger than an average British car boot sale - they nevertheless offer an impressive variety of goods. Just about any film to be found in a good Western video store is there - plus a few still confined to theatrical distribution in Europe. And it is cheap: a full set of Lethal Weapon movies copied off a laser disc might cost less than 20,000 roubles, or dollars 50 (hard currency welcome). Films copied off other cassettes or off TV sets in Western hotels are even cheaper.

Until recently, the Russian government's policy on piracy has been, to put it charitably, ambivalent. Officially, it disapproved, but it allowed pirated videos to be sold openly in its own Gastronom food stores and permitted the cable stations to continue broadcasting illegally. There were promises of a clean-up, but politicians were far too preoccupied with their own power struggles to fulfil them. Judge Fedotov's aim is to end this ambiguity once and for all. A former head of the Russian intellectual property agency, his attitude to piracy is robust; he does not approve.

'Our legal system is trying to put a stop to piracy and we will succeed,' he said. 'I have a pair of handcuffs hanging over my table - purely decorative, for the edification of the criminal.' His hope is that by showing his determination to rehabilitate his country's record, he will create the conditions for attracting what has been dubbed 'cultural credit'. This is the media equivalent of the Marshall Plan; in return for providing high- grade material cheaply, foreign companies are allowed to establish a strong position in Russia's developing media market.

'The idea of cultural credit is similar to the idea of financial credit,' Mr Fedotov said. Copyright owners would offer the rights to show their programmes at a moderate price to build up the market.

The policy is already showing signs of working. The MPAA has lifted its embargo and has pledged to send teams to Moscow to advise the authorities on enforcing the new copyright law, due to be passed next month. The main TV channels have signed a number of deals with leading Hollywood studios, the most important of which is a three-year barter arrangement between Channel 1 and Columbia Tristar, under which Columbia provides a range of films and cartoons in return for prime-time advertising slots.

The government has also given the licence for Channel 6, Russia's first private station, to a consortium led by CNN's Ted Turner, a familiar figure in Moscow since he backed the Goodwill Games in 1986.

Although initially just broadcasting in Moscow, Channel 6 ultimately aims to bring a mix of locally-made material, CNN bulletins and films from Mr Turner's huge library to the entire nation. With economic reforms doing so little to raise the lives of ordinary Russians above the drudgery of subsistence, it is the media, and in particular television, that lead the reformers' attempts to turn a nation of Communists into consumers.

As Sergei Muratov, a media adviser to the government, put it: 'We have an expression: 'erasing the border between town and country'. As a future viewer of commercial television, I would like to see the border erased between the town and the planet, between Moscow and every other capital in the world.

'Television represents the smallest distance between man and mankind, and I hope the watching these channels will allow me to experience this gap closing altogether.'

The writer is reporting for Russian Week on BBC2's 'The Late Show'.

(Photograph omitted)