Watching excerpts of Soviet television on the PBS special "Channel 3, Moscow" is a fascinating and sometimes frustrating experience: It's like coming across a secret code in which you understand the individual words but not their composite meaning.
The hourlong program, hosted by Mark Russell, contains clips from Soviet broadcasts that were intercepted off a Soviet satellite over the past year, then translated and analyzed by a consortium of four U.S. universities. It airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Channel 50, at 9 p.m. on Channels 15 and 24 and at 10 p.m. on Channel 28.
The clips are fascinating because of the glimpses of Soviet life they offer and because of their sheer diversity--ranging from investigative news reports to game shows, from commercials to stand-up comedy, from commentaries about the dangers of rock music and "Rambo" to footage of citizens being stopped by the police for jaywalking. There is an amazing scene of school-children singing along in class to a recording of Pete Seeger performing "We Shall Overcome."
They are frustrating because of the way station KTCA in Minneapolis has packaged them and because they are the products of a government-controlled medium and therefore not necessarily what they seem.
For this reason, Russell is joined on the program by three Soviet experts who intermittently offer comments on and interpretations of what's been shown.
This is one of the confusing aspects of the program's packaging. The experts are sometimes at odds with the unseen, unidentified narrator, who presumably speaks on behalf of the project supervisors. Where she reports being surprised at some of what turned up on Soviet TV, such as the critical tone of several consumer-oriented news reports, the panel of experts downplays the significance and says Soviet citizens probably found these segments more humorous than revealing.
Adding to the confusion is the way the translation has been dubbed in--by a single voice, with the original voice track almost completely muffled. Thus, when there are several people in the picture, it frequently isn't clear who is speaking: one of the people on screen or an unseen reporter or commentator.
Whatever the academic goals of the monitoring project, "Channel 3, Moscow" has been put together with entertainment values in mind, starting with Russell who, as host, can't help making jokes about some of the footage. And some of it clearly has been included because it will strike Westerners as funny, such as the admonition to "plan carefully when bringing your refrigerator to the factory for service. Remember, not every model will fit into a taxi."
Whether this approach to the material will promote greater understanding and harmony seems unlikely. But the sheer novelty of seeing these Soviet images makes "Channel 3, Moscow" worth checking out.
Just keep in mind what you think a foreigner would make of a one-hour program that showed clips of what Americans watch on television during the course of a day.