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Analysis & Opinion
16.09.08 A Joke To Be Banned
By Sergei Balashov

In response to calls from religious groups, Russian state prosecutors have intervened and issued warnings to broadcasters, discouraging further airing of controversial shows. There is hardly any doubt that Russian television has an ethics problem, but the civic groups and the prosecutors seem to be barking up the wrong tree.

American animated series, most notably the Simpsons, MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, and Comedy Central’s South Park have become as popular in Russia as they are in the United States, quickly assimilating into popular culture and boosting the ratings of their Russian broadcasters. The protagonists of these shows, sometimes ignorant, unintelligent and artless, help expose the stereotypes endemic not only in the West, but in Russia as well. Some, however, missed the humor.

In March of this year, the leaders of Russian Protestant groups called on the General Prosecutor Yuri Chaika to shut down Russia’s 2x2 cartoon channel due to inappropriate content. The Russian counterpart of the FCC, the Federal Surveillance Service for Mass Communications, subsequently reacted by issuing a warning to the broadcasters, whose license, due to expire in October, is now at risk.

The channel took the warning seriously and reviewed its content, dropping 15 episodes of South Park and discontinuing two cartoons, the Adventures of Big Jeff and Happy Tree Friends, after they were found to promote violence and cruelty by the Surveillance Service. The Union of Evangelical Christians, a Russian Pentecostal organization, decided that these measures were insufficient, and appealed to the General Prosecutor’s office again in early September, calling for a ban on South Park altogether. This time, 2x2 was more defiant, and asserted that they would not pull the plug on South Park and will take the case to court if necessary.

And necessary it might be, as the new outcry against 2x2 resulted in Moscow prosecutors issuing another non-binding warning to the channel, in which an episode of the show titled “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics,” which aired in January, was labeled as extremist and offensive to different confessions. Even though the warning carries little legal power, the channel plans on challenging it in court.

The wrong kind of humor

South Park, which depicts the life of a group of elementary school students in a small town in Colorado, has been immersed in controversy due to coarse language, scatological humor, taboo subject matter and unfavorable portrayal of various religious groups.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all been parodied in South Park. An episode ridiculing Scientology caused musician Isaac Hayes, a devout Scientologist who voiced over one of the characters, to leave the show.
The management of the channel argues that the cartoon is purely satirical and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. More so, it shouldn’t be a problem for the channel’s target audience and anyone possessing a slight sense of humor and the ability to view current events and public life critically.

“We are a channel for adults,” said General Director of 2x2 Roman Sarkisov. “If we’re going to say that animation is only for kids and animation for adults is inappropriate in Russia, then let’s go ahead and ban it and shut down our channel.”

Russian television associations and TV personalities sympathized with the channel and questioned what was perceived as a disproportionate response of the regulating bodies. “Animation or any satirical content cannot be subject to the kind of expertise that was implemented in this case,” said Eduard Sagalaev, president of the National Association of TV and Radio Broadcasters. “There was an expert on English language, an expert on child psychology, but no experts on animation and motion pictures.”

Others opine that the Pentecostal Church, which discourages its members from watching television and going to movie theaters, has confused the governing responsibilities of the state with its own religious doctrine.

“It wouldn’t be right to say that South Park is impeccable because this show is indeed a satire that’s walking on the edge of what is deemed acceptable,” said film producer and TV anchor Sam Klebanov. “But this satire is rather relative; it exists within the conventional realm of animation. Any religious community can recommend its members to refrain from watching South Park and it’s everyone’s own business whether to watch it,” he added.

The bigger picture

Every South Park episode is preceded by a disclaimer warning persons under the age of 14 against watching the show, which is aired after nine p.m. Sarkisov explained that in daytime, the rotation consists of more family-oriented shows, while in the evenings the schedule switches to the more “ironical,” including South Park, on at 11.
“It’s not worse than what we can see on other channels,” said Sarkisov.

It would be hard to disagree, since national television has drawn a certain amount of criticism from the public, which, however, rarely if ever translates into any form of legal action or receives as much attention in the media as South Park did.

“Today we’re talking about establishing public councils within TV channels to monitor ethics, but federal television needs it just as much as 2x2,” said film expert Larisa Malyukova. “What we see before 11 p.m. is indecent and improper, if you want to watch a good movie you can do it only late at night, but shows like [Andrei Malakhov’s “Let Them Talk”] get broadcasted to a multimillion audience together with all the dirty laundry that is being aired there.”
Along with Malakhov’s show, which can be seen on Channel One at 6 p.m. scrutinizing the guests’ private matters, Malyukova also referred to the highly controversial reality show “Dom-2” (House 2) aired on TNT, one of Russia’s top five channels with a total audience of 100 million. In this reality show, contestants are supposed to find a partner to compete with other couples for the viewers’ sympathy.

In 2005, deputies of the Moscow City Duma addressed then General Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov requesting to shut down the show, blaming it for “exploiting the sex drive by showing acts of petting and masturbation.” This motion didn’t result in any legal action taken against either the TV channel or “Dom-2,” which remains Russia’s most popular Russian reality show.

“The difference in reception enables us to diagnose our TV audience,” said Director of the Center for Psychological Support of Education Tochka Psi Marina Bityanova. “If we look at the protest against these cartoons, we’ll see that TV shows that are shallow and explicitly vulgar are met with much less repudiation than such provocative shows; as a psychologist I think it’s sad but it gives us an idea what we should work on.”

Rejection and repudiation in Russia almost always equal an official ban.

“That’s what the history of our country has taught our people, if you don’t like something, it should be banned,” said Malyukova.
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