Yeltsin stops OU station broadcast

November 8, 1996

Russia's version of the Open University will screen its last education programmes this week following a decree by President Boris Yeltsin to hand over its broadcasting frequency to a popular pro-government commercial channel.

Moscow-based NTV Independent Television will take over sole broadcasting on Channel Four, ending a three-year arrangement by which it shared air-time with the state-owned Russian Universities Channel, part of the second public network RTR (Radio Television Russia).

The move, sanctioned in September by a presidential decree widely regarded as a pay-off for NTV's backing during Yeltsin's re-election campaign earlier this year, brings to an end nearly 25 years of educational and curricular television broadcasting in Russia.

More than 100 education journalists, producers and technical staff at the university channel will lose their jobs and viewers throughout Russia will be deprived of hugely popular programmes such as Business English, a weekly, 30-minute programme watched by an estimated two million people. As many as one quarter of Russian youngsters had relied on the channel for foreign language lessons.

But although NTV has pledged to continue screening some educational programmes, Russian broadcasting law does not stipulate any obligation to do so.

Stanislav Arkipov, out-going director of the Russian Universities Channel, said: "It's a very big mistake. Russia without an educational channel cannot survive. An educational channel is not merely the means of presenting our culture, it is also a medium for demonstrating new trends and developments in science and a means of bridging the gap between old and new, one generation and the next."

Staff were horrified last month when Eduard Sagalaev, head of the channel's mother company VGTRK, the All-Russian State Broadcasting Company, told them not to produce new programmes.

Professional pride prevented staff heeding the advice, Mr Arkipov said, but the warning speeded the departure of journalists and producers to other stations, including NTV.

"We've been living with the rumours of our demise for a year. Unfortunately it's always money that wins. NTV has money, we don't," Mr Arkipov said. "If the reason for the channel's closure was financial, as has been stated, the government should have sold or auctioned the channel off to raise money."

Speculation about the reasons for the presidential decree have been rife in the press. NTV director Igor Malashenko has been strongly tipped as the next head of ORT (Russian Public Television), the first public channel.

Mr Arkipov said rumours that the channel, launched in 1972 as a 16-hours-a-day operation, was facing closure, had been circulating for the past year and its budget had been cut. Recently the channel had been on air ten hours a day, broadcasting eight hours of educational programming a day.

Its output included two hours of foreign languages, Russian language lessons for children and specialised university-level computer, science and other curricular programmes. Classic Russian films, often drawn from literature studied at school and university, made up the air time.

Mr Arkipov was dismissive of NTV's claims that it will honour the spirit of the channel and broadcast educational material during the day: "I expect that NTV will buy in 1,000 hours of educational programming from the BBC - British films, British natural history programmes, culture etc. But Russian topics will make up a tiny percentage of this package."

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