Large terrestrial television networks have for many years been losing audience across the industrialised world. Those with the highest programming costs — in the U.S. and the U.K. — are on a vicious cycle of declining revenues that lead to less attractive programming, rinse, repeat. ITV in the U.K. is barely recognisable from twenty years ago, La Cinq in France is long dead, The WB and UPN in the U.S. were shut down and merged into the barely profitable CW, and the country’s most-watched network on Fridays, and in the crucial 18–34 demo on other days, is now routinely the Spanish-language Univisión. Heading a major terrestrial network has become a very stressful job.
The same is happening in Russia. The top three terrestrial networks, Channel One, Russia 1 and NTV, had a combined 55.4 full-day audience share in 2005 (full-year and regardless of means of distribution) in the country’s TNS TV Index. By 2008, this dropped to 51.3. Then the rate of decline doubled, and in 2012, the three networks had a 41.0 share. At this rate, they would drop to zero in 16 years (of course they won’t but they can easily engage a vicious circle that would render them irrelevant to most).
The main reason for the big three’s decline over
time seems to be their heavy bias towards older viewers. They had a 53.4 share in Jan.–Oct. 2012 among people 55+ (life
expectancy there is 64.3 for men and 76.1 for women, so this cohort is
proportionally smaller than in most other industrialised countries),
39.4 among people of ages 35–54, 29.9 among those 18–34, and 17.0 among
This is interesting not just from the perspective of broadcast management. Almost from his election in 2000, Vladimir Putin has based his autocracy on near-total control of these three networks, which he quickly established, and on the dissuasion of other terrestrial networks from any informational role (the runner-up TNT and STS networks are tolerated because they have no news programming; the once-critical REN was acquired by a progovernment owner and largely neutered). On the big three, the opposition that has emerged since the fraudulent parliamentary elections in December 2011 is occasionally pilloried as foreign agents but usually not mentioned at all. Of the several protest events since then that brought out more than 100,000 Muscovites, only one was mentioned — briefly — on two of those channels, and only because their news staff threatened to strike. The third canceled its main newscast that day. The leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny is blacklisted from any mention; his arrest last week after being sentenced to five years in prison on a trumped-up charge was covered — briefly — on just one of the big three. The Russia visible on these screens has no meaningful political choice at all.
Putin has relied heavily on the support of older, poorer and provincial Russians, most of whom vote either for him and the majority United Russia Party or for the declawed and controlled Communist Party. These are thought to watch mostly the terrestrial channels: many cannot afford pay TV and have no interest in other channels anyway; few of them use the Internet. He is known to review only the newscasts of the big three networks, usually to the exclusion of any other media.
If the régime doesn’t topple earlier, the big three could lose half of their remaining share by the time Putin seeks reelection in 2018. If they do, television news will cease being a regular item on the menu of most Russians — an unprecedented development in the industrialised world. What will be the effect of the loss of the country’s main source of information?
The TNS report, in Russian, is at http://tnsglobal.ru/media/content/B7525726-B5E1-4C12-BE25-4C543F42F3EE/TV%20in%20Russia.pdf .