Russian TV: an Unexploited Opportunity

SOVIET citizens lived in isolation from the rest of the world for over 70 years. Now these 280 million people must bridge the gap and learn how to function in a free-market economy. Educating so many people to cope with such drastic political and economic changes is a monumental task. But the global cost of failure would be enormous.

From early childhood, Westerners experience free-market concepts through watching TV advertising, playing games like Monopoly, and selling lemonade and Girl Scout cookies to neighbors. Even the brightest and best-educated Russians have not had this kind of exposure and do not automatically grasp concepts that are obvious to us. This lack of understanding causes them to be apprehensive about the disruptive effect of reforms on their lives. They fear unemployment, homelessness, and higher prices and have l ittle appreciation of how the bitter medicine of today can lead to a healthier society tomorrow.

The challenge to the world has been to find the most effective and rapid methods of helping these people. The top-down approach to economic reform breeds resistance, frustration, and disillusionment. It runs the risk of ultimate failure. Russian leaders need to use all their resources to convince the public that the direction they are taking is sound. Approaches that will change attitudes developed under 70 years of communism are at least as vital as instruction. Today, many American organizations are sp onsoring seminars, courses, exchange programs, and internships. These activities are important but reach at most a few hundred thousand people. How do we reach the other 280 million?

The Soviet government spent billions of rubles to construct two sophisticated national satellite television networks that reach even the remotest parts of the country - a country with 11 time zones covering one-sixth of the earth's land mass. Over 90 percent of homes have television sets, four times as many as have telephones. Leaders knew its propaganda power. Television is the principal source of information and entertainment for the majority of Russians who have met few foreigners and understand no We stern language.

Television networks can be used to help them understand the dynamics of a free-market economy. But to get programs on the air requires solid business connections. Personal relationships are critical because Russians mistrust their government and ours. They are suspicious of anyone they do not know and quickly recognize propaganda for what it is. Still, entrepreneurial organizations that can deal directly with television professionals there can overcome these problems.

For the past two years, my organization has been helping many Soviet, now Russian, television producers put together low-cost broadcasts on market economics. One approach has been to provide American videotapes on relevant subjects. Some tapes are instructional, but more often they deal with Russian misperceptions about our economic way of life. Most Russians think you can become wealthy only if you deal on the black market, exploit workers, or do something else dishonest. We have countered by providing US videotapes on the struggle of entrepreneurs to succeed in our society, showing how success can lead to better jobs for workers and an economically healthier community.

Another one of our national television series uses Russian television crews to follow the lives of their fellow countrymen who are temporarily in the United States for on-the-job training or as interns. The programs focus on their experiences and perceptions and emphasize the obligations and responsibilities of employers and employees to each other. They also demonstrate what it is like to shop in an American store and live in an American home. Each episode covers individuals that the average Russian can

relate to, such as farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and managers.

Last year we also helped convert a well-established, popular prime-time television series from its original science theme to market economics. The series was based on US interviews by the internationally known Russian host, Sergei Kapitsa, with famous Americans including economists Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith, Milton Friedman, and Larry Summers.

Although these programs provide only a small portion of what is needed, they have received the enthusiastic support of Russian reform leaders, television professionals, budding business executives, and ordinary people. Russian television organizations have borne most of the ruble cost of producing programs and have made free air time available. Still, much of the technical and programmatic resources must come from the West and be paid for with hard currency.

Thus far, my limited resources have been the primary source of financial support for our efforts. The US government does not consider this a priority and has not provided any private-sector funding specifically for television. Furthermore, the Russian economy has not yet developed to the point where commercial sponsorship is viable. To compound the problem, even major private foundations have defined their roles in such a way as to lose sight of this important goal.

The Western world has a unique opportunity to influence these people, but it must act soon, before the opportunity disappears.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.