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Two Nations, One Vision: The Internet Is Poised to Overtake Television as the Key Information Supplier - Dan Peleschuk - Russia Profile - 12.14.11 - JRL 2011-225-12

An incredible thing happened recently. Just days after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared before a convention of domestic and foreign Russia watchers in mid-November, where he faced a slew of tough questions about Russia's decaying political system and its future, the country hit a major benchmark. Russia now ranks as the most Internet-connected country in Europe, with roughly 50 million users in September, according to a recent report by the Internet research company ComScore. Russia's large population undoubtedly plays a key role­keeping in mind, especially, that Germany, the runner-up, posted nearly the same amount of users but has just over half the population. Still, it sends a clear message: Russia is steaming ahead in the age of the Internet. But where does this leave television, the previously tried-and-true information source for most Russians?

Throughout the past few years, the increasing ubiquity of the Internet in Russia­whose citizens have traditionally relied mainly on television for their information­has led observers to speak about two divergent media audiences: the "television nation" and the "Internet nation." The latter is comprised of those born in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, or even after its collapse, who almost exclusively turn to the Internet for everything from news to entertainment; they are the young, the liberal, the forward-thinking. The former, meanwhile, denotes the older and more conservative Russians­those, perhaps, who are set in their ways, without access to or a desire for a greater, more critical flow of information than that which state-run television provides them.

Yet this might be a simplification. What's happening instead is a more complex conflict that manifests itself through many divides: cultural, generational, geographic, and economic, among others. Nevertheless, as the Soviet generation continues to die off and the post-Soviet generation comes of age, observers say, the Internet may increasingly take over television's role as the key provider of information. The great divide, meanwhile, remains a debated issue among experts.

The Old Days

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, television played a key role as a purveyor of state-sponsored propaganda and light entertainment. It was meant not only as a tool to keep the masses conforming to the party line, but also to bring them together. Just as neighborhoods and apartment blocks were engineered to form social units, the four available channels on state television­most citizens really had access to only two­helped foster a sense of social solidarity among the people, nearly all of whom watched television on a daily basis. Everyone watched the same news broadcasts, the same shows. They were all on the same page.

But as the Soviet regime crumbled and perestroika gave way to the eventual collapse, television served an entirely new purpose. As the chaotic socio-political environment of the Boris Yeltsin-era took shape, television was transformed into a freer, largely uncensored arena where, for once, real issues were discussed, Western ideals were imported and political parties and their patrons clashed head-to-head. According to media researcher Ekaterina Kratasiuk, Russian television of the 1990s was "an ideal model" of broadcasting, a result of a newfound freedom in a formerly dull and restricted landscape. "In the 1990s it was incredible," said Kratasiuk, an associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities. "All this free, uncensored broadcasting in real time from party assemblies­people were so interested in it, they were watching it like a soap opera."

But the brief flirtation with free media soon ended. The onset of political consolidation and heavy-handed rule under then-President Vladimir Putin forced opposition voices into a corner and, eventually, off the stage. Television became the most visible victim, as the forced takeover in 2000 of NTV­prominent in the 1990s for its critical and insightful reporting­marked the beginning of widespread, Kremlin-friendly broadcasting.

Turning It On

Today, that trend continues. Most of the frequently watched channels are state-owned, and not only stray from covering unpleasant news, according to critics, but serve as mouthpieces for the regime. In an era of increasing globalization, and the growing demand for the interconnectivity that comes with it, television is being left behind. Coupled with Russia's continued tight-fisted rule and the rising level of discontent with the authorities, many have increasingly begun to tune out. Those who haven't remain, in a way, stuck in the past.

According to the latest statistics from the Levada Center, while the percentage of television viewers still hovers around 84 percent, only 17 percent of viewers agree that Russian television provides a complete and objective picture of the world today, while 63 percent believe censorship plays a role in broadcasting. Taken together, these numbers suggest that many Russians have either lost faith in television as a bona fide information source or tacitly accept its diminishing role­or both. Kratasiuk claims that the bulk of today's television audience consists of older viewers "addicted" to television because it represents a comfort zone amidst a time of growing uncertainty and change. "They don't watch news, or any programs that could be informative­they watch Soviet films. It's the main part of their addiction," said Kratasiuk. "And of course, when they watch these films, they feel nostalgia and start to think how much better it was in the Soviet Union, and all these emotions are connected with television." Meanwhile, she said, younger audiences are becoming more disenchanted for the same reason­namely because they associate modern television with "Soviet" type of media, increasingly out of tune with today's realities.

Others point to the decreasing utility of television as an information source for younger generations. Prominent media critic Ivan Zassoursky said that today's current landscape, in which there's a "closed" traditional media system­which includes state television and the state-sanctioned press­and the "open" Internet, young audiences are automatically attracted to the latter, where they can enjoy a larger and freer flow of information that can't be accessed via television. Besides, he said, "Watching television has become unfashionable."

The New Way

The Internet in Russia today, it might be said, is the television of the 1990s. It plays host to political debates, critical analysis, and even revolutionary entertainment. Particularly in the past few years, countless new Web sites have sprung up to fill the information void left by television, and while some of these projects are news outlets, others are focused on opinion and commentary. All, however, enjoy the virtually unlimited freedom that state television and a largely muzzled press cannot provide. "While in the mainstream media, many issues are downplayed or reserved for the second part of a newscast, the contrasting view of priorities [on the Internet] sets the stage for drama," Zassoursky said. "When the Internet audience refuses to accept the agenda set by politicians, it refuses to take part in the discourse of mainstream media and develops a protestant discourse on its own."

And the leaders for these new media projects are members of the very generation they attempt to target: young, well-educated and intellectually curious Russians. Take Andre Gorianov, for example. Smart, tech-savvy and self-assured, he is the editor in chief of Slon.ru, a popular Russian Web site that provides commentary on politics, business, and economics. Launched in 2009, Slon.ru is a novelty in many ways. The Web site is consciously modeled after a handful of Western online niche publications, such as Business Insider and TechCrunch, and doesn't just report the news, but offers a unique take on stories that have already broken. Slon.ru also attempts to diversify its content delivery for the curious­yet time-strapped­reader. Gorianov emphasized how each piece, purposely called an "item," can take on any form: a story, commentary, graphic, quotation, or more. "I don't think anyone in Russia is doing what we're doing," he said.

What's more, Slon.ru, with its estimated 1.1 million visitors per month, attracts the exact same audience discouraged by television programming and the general dearth of information available through traditional media. "We get people who are quick-thinking, who have a great career, who are pretty intellectually brilliant, who don't want to leave Russia­but want to change something here­and who are excited about what they are doing," Gorianov said.

Others are thinking along the same lines, but with different approaches. Another example is Chastniy Korrespondent, an online publication founded by Zassoursky that bridges the gap between news and opinion. Launched in 2008, ChasKor is based on the increasingly popular premise of user-generated content­but "on a triple 'A' level," according to Zassoursky­and has grown through the past few years to include thoughtful commentary on current events in Russia, the world, society, business and others. "If you have something really clever to say, something that you really want to convey to people who can really read it and understand what you mean, then ChasKor might be the best way to say it," Zassoursky said.

Perhaps the most telling detail is the audience that ChasKor has amassed. While Zassoursky initially commissioned articles from writers for-hire, he ended the practice in 2010; since then, he said, he has attracted a greater number of high-quality submissions­not necessarily only from journalists, but from curious readers. He points to this fact as a testimony to the Internet's growing capability to satisfy younger audiences in a way television cannot. "It has become a sort of convergence point for Russian intellectuals," Zassoursky said, "and by doing so it has finally activated this media model."

Location Matters

But still, the growing influence of the Internet is not all-encompassing. In a country where divides of all colors and stripes­social, political, economic, geographic­are ever present, the divergence between television and the Internet is no exception.

Experts point to several main points, the most prominent of which is the disparity between urban and rural populations. While in Russia's urban centers­such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk, among others­Internet connectivity remains almost universal, this is not the case in the rest of Russia. Fixed-line Internet, Kratasiuk said, is taken for granted in these larger centers, while it is a luxury in countless small cities, towns and villages across the country. In many cases, using mobile devices is the only way to gain access to the Internet in rural areas, and analysts estimate that only about 30 percent of Russians there are connected.

Yet not all indicators point to the negative. In some cases, this urban-rural divide is helping to bridge the information gap. According to Kratasiuk, rural populations are beginning to see Internet use as compensation for the fact that they lie outside the major urban centers of information, which, in turn, makes them more adventurous. "When people start to connect to the Internet, they use it very widely, and they are much more inventive in their use," said Kratasiuk. "They are so interested that they not only go to the regular social networks every day, but they really start to use this instrument in every possible way."

As for the generational divide, however, other experts remain less positive. Vlad Strukov, a media expert at the University of Leeds, said that enough time has elapsed in post-Soviet Russia that several generations have come of age, each with its own ideology and outlook on life. While shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union it was possible to view Russia as composed of two different generations, he said, today it is much more complex. "I define the Russian media system and its social components as divided not in the sense of lifestyles and brands as we have in the UK and elsewhere, but divided in terms of values, experience and view on what Russia is really about," said Strukov.