For US audiences, a 3-hour sample of Soviet TV
New York — Larry King's Night of Soviet Television TBS/cable, Wed. 8:05-11:05 p.m. Host: Larry King. Senior producer/co-director: John H. Savage. Coordinator of Soviet TV segments: Andrei Golovanov. One good place to spot signs of Soviet glasnost (openness) is in the country's own television programming.
Until recently, Soviet TV was largely electronic propaganda - programs designed to inform and instruct, spouting only the official line about everything going on in the Soviet Union as well as the rest of the world.
Since glasnost, there has been a noticeable change. Some Soviet television has become more diverse, sophisticated, ingenious, humorous, honest. There's a wider variety, ranging from wacky farce to talk and game shows, each with a unique Soviet twist. Of course, there is still a lot of the same old grim, humorless propaganda stuff, as well.
Larry King, under the aegis of a Turner Broadcasting System crew headed by senior producer John H. Savage, has gathered excerpts from the best of the new Soviet TV, interspersed them with interviews, and joined it all together with an incisive commentary written mostly by Mr. Savage. The result is a unique viewing experience - a fascinating and stimulating evening depicting the struggle for a new kind of Soviet creativity to emerge.
The program offers samples of the best of Soviet movies, newscasts, game shows, rock-and-roll concerts, documentaries, drama, and sports. There are interviews with people on the street and with ``Young Turk'' directors and producers.
The show is a collage rather than a solid sampler, because the language difficulties and cultural gaps would render the use of many full-length programs too tedious for American audiences. But I wonder if those curious enough to tune in might not have been eager to watch more of the programs straight through. The only nearly complete excerpts are from two stirring movies, ``Letter to the Fir Tree'' and ``Scarecrow.''
Viewers of the entire three hours will get a vivid sense of the exhilarating changes taking place. It is especially interesting that the most creative and exciting programs are those aimed at young adults. As King says, ``The spirit of fun is growing. ... You feel the sense of excitement that the Soviets feel,... a sense of expectation - history in the making, perhaps. Through their television, however faintly, we can begin to form a clearer picture of who the Soviet people are.''
Perhaps inclusion of a few more of the surviving propagandistic programs would have given a better-balanced picture, but then few American viewers would be likely to stay with them. ``Larry King's Night of Soviet Television'' is eminently watchable.
A chat with the producer/director
``The major difference between Soviet television and ours has been that their TV is supposed to teach people to think correctly; our TV is supposed to gather an audience, so it can be sold to an advertiser,'' says senior producer Savage, reached by phone.
According to Savage, who spent several months watching satellite transmissions of Soviet programs, then one month doing interviews inside the USSR, Soviet television is adding one basic new ingredient: ``entertainment.''
Savage says he experienced very little government interference when he filmed segments of the program in the USSR. ``I went out and did cornball man-in-the-street interviews, and they didn't stop me. ... Most people seemed to believe Soviet TV was getting better, but in the past it was just garbage. Most of it still is garbage, they believe, but there are some interesting things on now.''
Is Savage worried that his program is really a tool of Soviet propaganda?
``I have already been accused of being brainwashed,'' he says. ``But I know when I am being manipulated. I am saying that they are human beings [in the USSR] - not that communism is a swell economic system. On the contrary, I think the program makes it clear that the system is not working and not likely to work.
``Glasnost is working like `Gangbusters' in television, but it is not working at all in the areas of getting goods and services to more people. TV bureaucrats are still censoring, but they are much more liberal.
``However, make no mistake about it: They are still in control.''