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The Election News Story on Russian Television: A World Apart from Viewers

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


Winning elections is so vital for Russian leaders that competing viewpoints on national television news channels have been scotched, together with the channels that broadcast them. This study examines the other side of the screen: how participants in focus groups in four Russian cities process national channels' treatments of an important regional electoral campaign. The study was conducted during the last period in which viewpoint diversity was still available via TV-6. Unlike findings about other news stories, election stories appear to have little connection to viewers' experiences and values and deprive them of using familiar heuristics to make sense of the stories. For the public, the election story is a genre apart, framed by the same confusing template no matter what the office or region. Even TV-6, soon to be shuttered, broadcast its combative message using that template, thus extinguishing any opportunity for identifying genuine diversity and leaving the audience unable to distinguish between state and private channels, something they easily did for other types of stories. Election stories only cue other election stories. It is mainly younger, "post-Soviet" participants who bring an alternative frame to watching: norms, acquired through their education, by which election stories in a democracy ought to be constructed.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Stuthes. 2006

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I would like to thank Leila Vasilieva, Olga Oslon, and Victoria Frolova for their invaluable assistance and the Markle Foundation for partial support of this study.

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18 In 2004, REN-TV, a Moscow-based network with less than 50 percent penetration, drew ratings for its independent news coverage that made it number one in Moscow. That was not true of any of the other cities to which it broadcast truncated headline-type news. With Moscow always the center of the political universe, however, this development made REN-TV especially vulnerable, and plans were developed to remove it from its owners’ hands by redirecting 70 percent of its stock and to warn the owner that entertainment should be substituted for news. In 2005 Irena Lesnevskaia and her son, founders of REN-TV, sold their shares in the station and exited the market.

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25 As commercial channels, I am counting those channels that broadcast entirely on a channel or share the broadcast time with another channel and whose authences are large enough to get reasonable ratings. Regional television is overall in a difficult position. Some notable exceptions exist, such as independent television in Tomsk, but, in general, as one study concluded: “Companies as a rule engage in media business as business by other means using the mass media to advance it. Individually standing TV-companies are already becoming a rarity for the market.” Kriazhev, R., “Regional'noe televidenie v razreze: Obshchestvennost', struktura, upravlenie, strategii,” Sreda 1 (37) (Jánuary 2002): 19 Google Scholar. Emphasis in the original.

26 For a demographic and media-use profile of the focus groups, see the appendix.

27 The full transcript of the news stories may be requested from the author.

28 Channel 1 did not cover the election diat day. In any case, its stories were usually considerably shorter and the government view was better developed on Channel 2.

29 Lunt and Livingstone, “Rethinking the Focus Group,” 91.

30 Rose, Richard and Munro, Neil, Elections without Order: Russia's Challenge to Vladimir Putin (Cambridge, Eng., 2002), 175–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Private television stations have a lower penetration than state television stations. Reception for private stations can vary from 30 percent (for REN-TV) to about 64 percent (for NTV). Thus, for purposes of comparison, it is helpful to look at the choices made by viewers who have the given option available.

31 “On basic guarantees of electoral rights and the right of participation in referendums for citizens of the Russian Federation,” 11 December 2004, para. 1.4. For this citation, I thank one of the anonymous referees.

32 Hutcheson, Derek, “Disengaged or Disenchanted? The Vote ‘Against AH’ in Post-Communist Russia,” Journal of Communist Stuthes and Transition Politics 20, no. 1 (March 2004): 99 Google Scholar,103.

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34 See, for example, Patrick Armstrong, “Against All—A Popular Candidate,“Johnson's List, no. 13 (21 Jánuary 2004), no. 7476; Hutcheson, “Disengaged or Disenchanted?“ 105; Corwin, Julie A., “Russia Bids Farewell to Regional Elections,” RFE/RL NEWSLINE 9, no. 2 Google Scholar, pt. 1 (5 Jánuary 2005); Stephen White and Ian McAllister, “Voting and Nonvoting in Postcommunist Europe” (paper presented to the American Political Science Association, Chicago, 2004).

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36 The Public Opinion Foundation survey was fielded 18 December 1993, with a sample of 1,593 Russian citizens and was conducted in large, medium, and small cities and in rural areas in ten regions of Russia.

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38 The points I make here and the reaction of the focus group participants bears a superficial resemblance to American research on negative advertising. Among political scientists in the United States, there is a vigorous debate about negative political advertising and its role in depressing turnout, and the findings are still quite mixed. Thus, even in the U.S. literature, the association between negative ads and voter turnout is still unclear. In addition, it would be a further error to layer onto the Russian electoral scene what is very distant from it: American voting behavior.

39 In the short supplementary questionnaire, I used news of Chechnia for several reasons: the issue is of importance to all regions; Chechnia is geographically much closer to Rostov-on-Don and even Volgograd than to the other two cities, and I wanted to see whether that made a difference in media consumption patterns; it was—and remains— an issue about which views differ significantly. Thus, although Chechnia was not a subject specifically brought up with respect to elections, it was an important cue for information consumption. Moreover, Chechnia did come up spontaneously in conversations about the oil pipeline in terms of its likely vulnerability to terrorism.

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