MOSCOW — It's a question that strikes fear into the hearts of couch potatoes everywhere: What would you do without television?
For 18 million people in and around Moscow, this concept became a reality after a fire at the Ostankino tower, Europe's tallest structure, knocked out broadcast facilities for all the main stations serving the Russian capital on Aug. 27. Experts predicted the TV famine could last a month or more.
Sales of newspapers, video rentals, and Internet use skyrocketed. Subscriptions to Russia's only major satellite TV network, NTV-Plus, increased by 400 times over the previous week.
And while info-hungry Muscovites endured the loss of their main source of news and entertainment fare with varying degrees of sullen resignation, the Kremlin appeared on the verge of panic.
"In Russia, television is the only reliable link between political power and the population, and when that connec-tion breaks there is a profound feeling of psychological unease and fear of instability," says Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow Association of Poltical Consultancies. "But it was the leaders who felt the loss most acutely, and that's why they launched a crash effort to get state TV back on the air."
Within four days, the two main state networks - RTR and ORT - were broadcasting on a joint channel from a transmitter jury-rigged on the burned-out Ostankino tower.
The satellite network NTV-Plus is owned by Kremlin opponent Vladimir Gusinsky, who has moved aggressively into new technology in recent years. Another Gusinsky holding, THT, was the only Moscow TV channel to keep broadcasting through the crisis, from a low-powered transmitter, because it had never been granted access to the state-dominated heights of Ostankino.
"The fact that Gusinsky's media were reaching people while the state channels were out added greatly to the sense of urgency in the Kremlin," says Mr. Markov.
Incredibly, no backups for the ageing Ostankino tower had ever been built.
"It amazes me that Yugoslavia could keep its state television on the air, even while NATO was trying to bomb it out of existence during the war last year," says Alexander Buzgalin, a political scientist at Moscow State University. "Even the rebels in Chechnya make TV broadcasts while the Russian Army is hunting them. But we had no alternatives. Our TV screens just went blank."
The 33-year old Ostankino, once a wonder of Soviet engineering, turns out to have been exhausted, overloaded, and a towering violation of most fire regulations.
But a decade's neglect evaporated the instant the TV went out.
"The two state-television networks were ordered to get back on the air as quickly as possible," says Alexei Kuzmin, a media consultant with the independent Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies in Moscow. "The silence was scary. The state definitely doesn't want people looking around, talking to each other, and actively searching for new sources of information. They found technical solutions very rapidly." Significantly, the priority fare they sent out was news and soap operas.
"After a series of disasters, the Kremlin is very worried about its image and the psychological mood of the people," says Vladimir Petukhov, an analyst with the independent Institute for Social and National Problems in Moscow.
In what Russians are calling "Black August," the past month saw a terrorist bomb kill a dozen people in a busy Moscow square, the sinking of an ultramodern nuclear submarine with all 118 crew on board - with embarassing reliance on Norwegian divers in a delayed, unsuccessful rescue attempt - and finally the Ostankino fire.
"Our leaders view TV as a kind of therapy, which soothes the people with light entertainment and comforting views. In the darkness last week, they probably feared anything could happen," says Mr. Petukhov.
In fact, the public was taking the TV blackout badly, but with no sign of revolutionary upsurge. "It was a very hard week, like sitting alone in a cemetery," says Svetlana Kurkina, a Moscow pensioner who usually fills her days with the Latin American soap operas and Soviet-era films that are standard fare on the state networks. "There are millions of elderly people in Russia who are too poor to afford any entertainment but TV," says Markov. "Getting the soap operas back on the air quickly was a real kindness to them, although I doubt that was the main reason for doing it."
For many young people and more affluent Muscovites, the crisis was an added push toward the latest alternatives of the Information Age, particularly the Internet and satellite TV.
"There was a brief surge in new technologies, but that won't continue now the TV networks are coming back," says Mr. Kuzmin. "State TV will continue to dominate, for the simple reason that most Russians can't afford computers, satellite dishes, or cable TV.
"Until we have a radical upswing in living standards, there will be no information revolution in Russia."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society