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Analysis & Opinion
28.05.09 Will Internet Kill The Television Star?
By Albina Kovalyova

Russia has increasingly embraced the Internet over the past several years. The country has several hugely popular social networking sites of its own, and recently Internet users have been lured into globally popular sites such as Myspace and Facebook. This week the Russian investment company Digital Sky Technologies announced that it has bought a two percent share of the latter. And even the country’s rulers are taking to the new media, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev launched his new blog on another social Web site LiveJournal. This move in the direction of interactive global technology is a departure from the controlled national television screens.

Russia’s most popular medium is, and has long been, television. More Russians rely on their TV for news and entertainment than on any other media, something that has not escaped the attention of the authorities. It is well known that the national television channels are state-controlled, even if they are not state-owned, and virtually all “liberal” stations, of which NTV was once the most prominent, have been rid of any provocative content. Mikhail Fedotov, the deputy chairman of the Union of Journalists of Russia and a co-author of the current media law, described the situation aptly: “Our constitution forbids censorship, but of course we understand what is in fact going on our television channels,” he said, adding that there is much more debate on the Internet.

With the absence of criticism and debate on television, many have taken to the Internet to fill the gap. Some, like Fedotov, have even noticed that this could lead to the Internet challenging television’s so far uncontested dominance of audience share. “There is already a demand for the Internet and competition between it and television. And this will intensify,” he said.

Russia’s vibrant social-networking sites are at the forefront of this process. The Russian-owned social-networking site LiveJournal, created by an American, Brad Fitzpatrick, and eventually sold to the Russian Sup Company in 2006, has become a particularly famous virtual forum for debate. Major users of the Web site include Americans, Britons and nearly one million Russians. The Web site works as a network of personal blogs, where people can comment on each other’s entries, thus providing a forum for discussion (not to mention scandal). Provided there is no abusive or illegal content, people are allowed to voice their opinion and be critical of others. And most interestingly of all, President Dmitry Medvedev has chosen this Web site to host his new blog.

The Internet is surely luring in television viewers who have become disillusioned by the limited amount of information and interaction. Social networking sites allow people to debate, track down old friends after years of separation, and stay in touch while living in various parts of the globe. The Internet is a defining feature of modernity that neither businesses nor politicians can afford to ignore.

According to Fedotov, this is why the Russian president has decided to promote the use of the Internet through addressing the nation via Internet blogs. “Dmitry Medvedev has used the Internet to a larger extent than his predecessor because he is a more modern person. I think that this primarily has to do with using the most modern means of communication,” he said. But according to Medvedev himself, the decision had more to do with interaction with the public. “I made this decision because there is a chance to communicate with people and to leave comments,” he was quoted as saying by The procedures for leaving comments on the president’s blog are still rather different from the regulations that apply to other users of the Web site, however. Comments have to be sent in for content approval, before they are posted on the site.

Compared to the West, Russia’s Internet culture is still relatively small. But it is growing. Russian companies and the government alike realize the value of the Internet. The Russian company Digital Sky Technologies (DTS) that has bought a share in the large social networking site Facebook, already has large shares in such sites based in Russia as “Odnoklassinki,” “V Kontakte,” and a site called “,” where users can browse the Web and register for personal email accounts. These sites, along with Russia’s answer to the Google search engine, Yandex, and various news Web sites, create a dynamic and varied Internet user market in the country.

DTS CEO Yuri Milner, who has extensive experience with social networking sites, said that he thought this to be a good investment. “Facebook is uniquely positioned to best take advantage of this worldwide trend. We are convinced that Facebook has the potential to be one of the most valuable Internet companies globally. We look forward to becoming long term partners of the team,” he said during a conference call quoted on the insidefacebook Web site.

Yet the Internet is also a potential problem for the government because it is more difficult to control. National television channels are much more localized than the internationally vast virtual world of the Web. Unless the government censors the Internet, as the Chinese government does, it will not be able to stop people from accessing information and being involved in discussions and debates that get suppressed on television screens. It remains to be seen whether the competition will result in a wider variety on television or a clampdown on the Internet.

There is a worry that the Internet may eventually become more popular than television in Russia. There are plans for television to go digital, but no one knows how long this will take. The creation of Internet content is much easier and cheaper, and therefore may mean a practical alternative to the slow, expensive and state-controlled television. But Fedotov thinks that this does not necessarily mean the end for television. “It will just move over to the Internet,” he said. The digitization would allow people to watch content online, and with time the quality of the image received through the Internet could equal that of television. The thing that could save Russian television, Fedotov believes, would be shifting the federal control over to public-service television, which would then be liberated from advertising. How this would work for a large number of channels is yet unclear, but it is obvious that if television functioned as a complex public service, catering to the large variety of tastes and interests, it would stand a better chance against the threat of the Internet.
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