Soviet television is a technical Goliath, leaping across nine time zones from lumberjack camps in northern Siberia to shepherds' huts in the Caucasus. Bouncing its signals off satellites, it reaches 80 million TV sets and 90% of the population.
But the main message--glorification of the Communist system--is controlled from studios in Moscow, where most of the programming originates.
Moscow's television tower--taller than the Empire State Building--dominates the city just as its TV programs dominate regional and local TV production centers.
And it is Central Television here that gets the bulk of the complaints--that it offers old and uninspiring movies, too much sports coverage, not enough popular music and some heavy-handed propaganda about the joys of menial labor.
Few Game Shows
There are no soap operas, only a few game shows and none of the situation comedies so popular on American television.
But there are regular "commercials" for state-owned enterprises--to promote the sale of television sets, for example--although suspicious Soviet viewers often regard the ads as a device to get rid of goods that no one wants to buy.
At its best, Soviet television can bring its national audience into the glittering Bolshoi Theater for a close-up of opera or ballet. But it also can bombard audiences with poorly delivered lectures on ideology that, according to one Moscow intellectual, are "extremely boring." Television news here also is distinguished by what it does not show--including stories about crime, airplane crashes and, lately, the statements by Soviet officials that Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko has been ill.
"We try to show more positive phenomena," Dmitri D. Biriukov, chief program director at Central Television, said in an interview.
"We are not sensation-hungry, and we have our own traditions in covering these events," he said about the policy of not reporting plane crashes or other calamities.
Insights Into System
But what is--or is not--broadcast on the TV news can provide insights into the Soviet system. Occasionally, it provides the only glimpse of such leaders as Chernenko and other members of the Politburo for Soviet citizens and Western observers as well.
Diplomats for years have watched major news and discussion programs to get clues to Soviet thinking. Last fall, Columbia University scholars began a comprehensive study of Soviet TV from pictures they picked up with a special "dish" receiver on the New York City campus.
"We are opening what is essentially an untapped scholarly resource," said Marshall D. Shulman, director of Columbia University's Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union.
The main evening news program--broadcast on every channel at 9 p.m. local time--is said to have the largest viewing audience, estimated at 150 million or more.
The program follows a predictable pattern, starting with any Soviet political developments, then invariably showing a filmed story on industrial workers and another on farm workers. International news, sports and weather follow in that order.
While most of the news about the United States has a predictable slant, Western diplomats here have noticed a subtle change recently, away from what one American termed the "bums on grates" representation of U.S. life.
The program regularly shows scenes of happy Soviet factory workers and smiling milkmaids that seem like a parody of "socialist realism" films from the 1930s.
A spokesman for Central Television recently explained its goals in an article for Teacher's Gazette, saying:
"Soviet TV has become an inalienable part of spiritual life in the socialist society, the most important instrument in political, moral and esthetic education. (Some shows) instill ideological firmness and adherence to the cause of the (Communist) Party and socialist motherland."
One of the major news discussion programs, called "Studio 9," recently began on a typical note as political observer Valentin S. Zorin said, "The Soviet Union is once again demonstrating both its good will and its constructive approach towards solving complex issues of world politics."
One Moscow engineer said the TV schedule was "90% propaganda." Program director Biriukov, however, estimated that less than two hours of every 14 hours of daily programming could be classified as propaganda in the Western sense of that word.
Aside from ideology, Soviet viewers have many complaints about the TV programs they watch. Central Television gets 3 million letters a year, and each one receives an answer.
"We pay close attention to the wishes and requests of our audience," Biriukov said.
As occurs in the United States, some critics here think children are watching too much television.
A medical doctor identified as V. Konovalov complained recently about "the magnetism of the blue screen," charging that it is making children passive, lazy and less interested in their schoolwork. He urged that children's TV viewing be limited to two or three hours a week.
Helping With Homework
But an official of Central Television, replying to the critique, said children's TV shows help them with their homework, adding, "TV comes as a good friend to every Soviet family." Perhaps one of the most widely watched children's programs is called "Good Night, Kids," and usually includes a cartoon, puppets and a prime-time lullaby.
Less than a year ago, the weekly Literary Gazette surveyed the evening television offerings and criticized the emphasis on movies and sports.
"Movies occupy one-fourth of evening TV time," the newspaper said. "Of 229 movies shown by Central Television in 1983, 109 were produced before 1970 . . . and only one-third of that number were films considered as classics." It said popular music accounted for an average 16 minutes per night, while classical music was performed for an average 55 minutes nightly.
116 Soccer Games
Literary Gazette complained that Central Television showed 116 soccer games and 100 hockey games a year, compared to 16 dramas, 8 operas and 8 ballets.
In the stream of letters that followed, sports fans and culture buffs divided sharply over whether to change the mixture of TV fare. Programming chief Biriukov said the opening of a second national channel has eased the situation for many viewers. Besides, he added, TV is showing more basketball, skiing and swimming to vary the heavy diet of soccer and hockey.
Comparing American and Soviet television, Biriukov added, "I give high marks to the professional quality of American television, but . . . our TV seems to be more intellectual overall because we are more independent financially."
While young people may want more Western popular music, including the latest rock groups, he said, "We do not find it necessary to popularize these trends."
Occasionally, a popular program may be dropped for political reasons. This seemed to be the case with "Cafe of the 13 Chairs," a comedy show that reportedly appealed to the late President Leonid I. Brezhnev, among others.
"It was really about Poland and Polish realities," said one former viewer. "As unrest in Poland continued, there were no fresh jokes which could be safely told, so it was dropped completely."
Television sets are relatively expensive by Western standards. The cheapest factory-made black-and-white sets sell for 160 rubles (about $180), while the best color model costs 785 rubles (about $887). At the end of 1983, only 12 million of 80 million sets were color models, but color TVs accounted for more than one-third of the 9 million sets produced last year.
Only Fair Reception
But quality--not price--appears to be buyers' major concern. Soviet consumers say some color sets tend to catch fire and others give only fair reception.
Even so, TV aerials on even the humblest wooden cottages are now the rule, rather than the exception, as television spreads into rural areas. By 1990, according to the plan, virtually everyone in the Soviet Union will be able to receive Central Television's Channel 1.