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A New Revolution

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, viewers are finally getting their MTV, or at least 6 1/2 hours of it each day. But with the Russian economy in dire straits, the network's celebratory launch has been tempered.

October 01, 1998|MARISA ROBERTSON-TEXTOR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — You can feel it in the air. A different sort of revolution has begun. Its slogans are apolitical, its targets are the young and vulnerable, and its leaders are none other than the terrible twosome.

That's right, Beavis and Butt-head have hit Russia, and they're out to take no prisoners.

The much-touted MTV Russia was launched at midnight Saturday, with a broadcast to a potential audience of 15 million in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In time, the 6 1/2 hours of daily programming are expected to expand to 24 hours, and the viewing audience to include other major metropolitan areas and perhaps eventually the whole country.

MTV Russia plans to reflect local trends and lifestyles while providing a 50-50 mix of Russian and Western videos, as well as other music-based programming and, of course, Beavis and Butt-head, infamous for their sniggering, irreverent repartee. Russian artists such as Mumiy Troll, Spleen and DJ Groove, which are expected to produce their own videos, will receive air time. Madonna, the Spice Girls and U2 are among the Western acts to be featured. Sponsors of MTV Russia include Pepsi, Sony and TDK.

The MTV music revolution has been a long time coming to Russia. It is the brainchild of Boris Zosimov, the president of Biz Enterprises and founder of Biz TV, a television program begun in 1992 and dedicated to airing music videos. Zosimov first fantasized about bringing music videos to Russia in the late 1980s when he taped several hours of MTV while in New York and smuggled the cassettes to Moscow to share with friends and family. Zosimov calls the Russia launch "a dream come true."

Some might argue that the timing is nightmarish. The financial gloom that has descended upon Moscow's emerging middle class, many members of which also make up MTV's target audience of 14- to 34-year-olds, may dampen its reception.

Take Sveta Saburova, a 28-year-old senior project manager at a market research company. She is too concerned these days with her dwindling paycheck to care about Russia's vibrant music scene. During the summer, Saburova could be found dancing until dawn at downtown clubs and concerts. Over the past month, however, her lifestyle has changed dramatically as the threat of unemployment looms.

"I do feel I have lost a part of myself, my life," Saburova says, sitting in her office late one Friday night. "I've stopped going out, I don't buy anything, and frankly I completely lack the desire to turn on the television and check out MTV."

MTV executives have taken such sentiments into account. The accompanying festivities originally planned for last Saturday--a gala affair featuring several thousand Russian musical luminaries--have been put on hold until happier times. However, the general outlook remains optimistic.

"We discussed postponement, but we decided that the show must go on," says Bill Roedy, president of MTV International.

Tom Freston, the chairman of MTV Networks, concurs. He draws a parallel between the launching of MTV Russia and that of the original MTV back in 1981, which drew similar criticisms of bad timing. It has since become clear, Freston says, that MTV "had the last laugh."

Some here are already laughing. "It's a wonderful victory for us to have MTV Russia," says Eteri Askerova, a 33-year-old poet and musician. Askerova first heard rumors of MTV in 1981, but it took another seven years and the advent of glasnost, the political opening under communism, before she saw her first music videos. She is happy that today's youth will not be similarly deprived. "Young people will be thrilled," she says.

Lena Trofimova, 17, already is. "It's great that a piece of the West has made it to us," she says. Her two friends, also named Lena, nod in agreement. "It's a bit of civilization," she adds, glancing at the kiosks and bars that are the only visible night life on this central Moscow boulevard. "I'll be watching."

MTV Russia is not the first chance Russians have had to view music videos. Several stations air them regularly, and MTV Europe is available on cable. But the new channel could offer Russian artists an international forum if their videos are picked up by MTV for use in other countries.

In the current financial climate, some question whether Russian musicians will be able to produce MTV-standard videos. Zosimov is the first to admit that the situation in the music industry today is "very grave." MTV Russia executives say their programming may eventually swing to 60%-40% in favor of Western videos.

Still, MTV has high hopes. Says Roedy, "Maybe the next Madonna will even come from Russia."

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