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Media : Stressed-Out Albanians Are Turning Into Couch Potatoes : * For one thing, the TV may be a family's only electric appliance. For another, it's too scary to go outside.


TIRANA, Albania — "Shogun" was to have been a treat, but it turned into a fiasco.

The first episode of the U.S.-produced television miniseries hooked nearly all of Albania. But a nationwide power failure nixed the second part, and an overtime soccer match cut into the third, leaving most here thoroughly confused by the end of the story.

In most countries, viewers would have been up in arms. But not in this nation of couch potatoes, where the tube is often a home's only electric appliance.

"For us, Japan is such an exotic place, people watched just to see the clothes and the faces," said Vjollca Dedej, a translator who wrote subtitles for the miniseries that aired in January. "It didn't seem to matter that no one could follow the story."

Despite annoyances imposed by a chronic electricity shortage and neophyte management of the sole national channel, Albanians revere television for its powers of entertainment, education and escape.

With little else to do in a desperately poor country suffering more than 50% unemployment and a terrifying crime wave, people spend a lot of time at home and have taken to tuning in television when they want to tune out life.

In addition to state-run Albanian television, citizens in the western part of the country are able to receive Italian broadcasts, those in the south can get Greek television and Yugoslav programs reach much of the east--which explains why many in this isolated and backward country can speak at least one foreign language.

"We have it on from the time we get up until we go to bed," said Dhimitra Avrami, a housebound grandmother referring to her 20-year-old Albanian-made Perparimi set, still able to pull in a snowy version of Italy's RAI network. "The girls like to watch 'Lassie' before they have to go off to school, and I never miss 'Santa Barbara.' I've watched it from the very first episode."

Avrami, her 34-year-old daughter, Natasha Zilo, and granddaughters Lorena and Milena study English together just before supper, when Albania's state-run network broadcasts lessons in four foreign languages.

"I watch them because I would of course like to go abroad some day," said a wistful Zilo, who has been laid off from her job at a gas-mask factory and now joins her mother to watch Italian-dubbed soaps.

In addition to language classes, the single Albanian channel, broadcasting only five hours each day beginning at 5:30 p.m., features cartoons for children, a nightly news program, then dubbed or subtitled foreign features taped from European satellite channels received through a single, U.S-donated dish.

Albanian news and talk show programs have much improved since the days of severe censorship under dictator Enver Hoxha. But with a limited schedule and amateurish sets and directing, their own television, Albanians say, is boring.

"There's nothing interesting on Albanian TV, so we usually watch Italian," said Deshyra Frasheri, a 49-year-old doctor who shares a tiny two-room apartment with her husband, two sons and mother. "Italian television was our window on the world for so many years. We don't know much about life outside Albania, but what we learned, we saw on Italian TV."

Every tumbledown apartment block in Tirana is bristling with crude antennas capable of capturing once-forbidden foreign television signals. So are most hovels in the countryside, even in remote mountain reaches.

No one dared publicly display their homemade contraptions during 45 years of dictatorship that ended only last year, but many families now concede they hid them on balconies, in chimneys or behind curtained windows.

"In the old days, if someone saw an antenna on your roof, there would be a knock on the door," Frasheri said. "We didn't dare risk it because our apartment is too low to the ground to be out of sight. But we could watch with our friends who live up higher."

Hoxha, who died in 1985 after 41 years of brutal Stalinist rule, measured the industrial progress of his hermetic country by the breadth of electricity service. He deployed forced-labor brigades to carry light poles and wires to every settlement in the country.

"Enver Hoxha invested a lot in propaganda, and he considered television the best means of reaching the people," said Ylli Pepo, deputy director of Albania's television network.

Despite its broad reach, television under the old regime was strictly censored.

"We had to take out everything from foreign films, especially profanity or scenes that showed a nice lifestyle in the West," said Dedej, who has worked for Albanian television for nearly a decade.

Highly sanitized Albanian offerings and surreptitiously viewed foreign programs were still the best distractions around.

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