Star-spangled chat show plugs the Kremlin line

For the devoted viewer of that American institution, the late-night talk show, it comes as a surprise. There's the familiar set, the metropolitan skyline, sparkling with wicked nocturnal promise.

There's the host in the suit and tie, sitting behind a desk decorated by coffee cups and a pot of pencils. And there, too, is the guest, in an armchair, battling against occasional interruptions from the band. In fact, until they open their mouths, there's nothing to remind you that this is not the Big Apple, but Moscow.

Russia's rapidly evolving television entertainment industry now has its own, strikingly similar, version of David Letterman and Jay Leno, using the format pioneered by the US King of Talk himself, Johnny Carson. The programme, Dobri Vecher (Good Evening), was launched this month on Russian television by Video International Productions. After studying the US shows, they hired a popular young comic called Igor Ugolnikov, 25 writers, and a Russian circus band leader, and set to work.

You might think success was assured, but the Russians were nervous. Russian audiences are still more conservative than their western counterparts. "It was a very big creative risk," said Alexander Akopov, the executive producer.

So far it has paid off. Preliminary figures suggest it is doing well, with 12 to 14 per cent of the potential night-time audience. The show is, however, still a far cry from the world of publicists, law suits and doubtful jokes that has been spawned by the murky ratings war between Leno and Letterman. "Our programme is more serious," said Mr Ugolnikov.

It's true. In one of his first shows, he did a "Top Ten" list, borrowing one of the most popular items on the Letterman Show. But unlike that great entertainer, it was not about the peccadilloes of the President, or the apparent guilt of OJ Simpson. He offered the "Top Ten reasons why Russia should not join Nato".

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