Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Central Asia: Russian Group Storms Onto Kazakh, Uzbek TV Scenes
By Gulnoza Saidazimova
Kazakhstan -- Man watches TV news in Almaty hair salon, 23Jun2006
A man watches TV at a hair salon in Almaty
A Russian media conglomerate's recent expansion into Central Asia has sparked considerable discussion in the region. Is it just a smart business deal -- or another instance of Moscow's intention, by stealth or by wealth, to reassert hegemony over the lands of its former empire, this time by broadcasting Russian-language soap operas and other fluff rather than news and information?
Russia's CTC Media recently announced a deal to buy one of Kazakhstan's most popular television channels and to register a new television company in Uzbekistan. Although the two acquisitions are markedly different, both are seen as "tasty morsels" picked up at bargain rates and likely to generate large profits in the two countries, which have a combined population of some 42 million people. But beyond commercial considerations lies a host of possible political implications.
CTC Media's plans to buy Kazakhstan's fourth-biggest television station, Channel 31, came as a surprise to many in that country. That's because CTC Media is seen as a "purely entertainment" group, while the Kazakh station is a "business-oriented media outlet with a strong information core," according to Viktor Klimov, a producer at Channel 31.
As a result, Klimov and others have voiced concern that there will be major changes in Channel 31's programming -- changes that would boost Russian influence in the energy-rich country, which under President Nursultan Nazarbaev has sought to pursue a multivector foreign policy friendly to Moscow, China, and the West.
Viewer Discretion Is Advised
To be sure, Russian broadcasts have remained popular across Central Asia since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. That's due to historical and cultural ties as well as the higher production quality and content of their programming. Nonetheless, the latest moves by CTC Media are raising concerns.
"The issues of redistribution of the information space concern not only business, but also national security," said Rozlana Taukina, who heads the Kazakh nongovernmental group Journalists in Trouble.
Taukina sees Russian media expansion into Central Asia as part of a Kremlin policy aimed at restoring its influence in the post-Soviet space. Calling CTC Media's moves "a threat to Kazakhstan," Taukina told RFE/RL that her concern is that some 70 percent of the country's population watches foreign broadcasts rather than Kazakh television.
"It is the Russian programs that the Kazakh people watch today," she said.
"Tomorrow, it will be Chinese. And what about the day after tomorrow? Will some other foreign powers broadcast their programs in Kazakhstan?" Taukina asks.
Like every other media outlet in Kazakhstan, Channel 31 -- which is legally obliged to broadcast half in Russian language and half in Kazakh -- has never criticized Nazarbaev, his family and friends, or their controversial involvement in state-owned businesses.
But viewers say it has offered professional programming that included analytical and political shows through 11 regional branches and 60 affiliates.
Now, reports say the new deal with CTC Media will affect Channel 31's daily analytical show, Informbureau. Klimov, a general producer of Informbureau, says he was told that the program's time and format were going to change.
But Armanzhan Baitasov, the head of Channel 31, said the station would maintain its "brand" while becoming richer in content. However, he added that the channel would start producing soap operas and other such programming.
"It's an absolutely new business in Kazakhstan," Baitasov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "We are positive that with [CTC Media's] entry into our company, our ratings will soar because there will be many new shows, films, and soap operas. We are also confident that a new competitive environment will emerge, and that it will have a positive impact on the whole media industry."
In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, CTC Media's new target for acquisition is perhaps less surprising.
The Russian group recently announced a deal with the Uzbek media company Terra Group, reportedly controlled by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova. The two sides are due to set up a new company -- divided into 51 percent Russian and 49 percent Uzbek stakes -- that will broadcast on Channel 30, a Terra Group holding that has recently been redubbed Markaz TV. Channel 30 is currently a purely entertainment channel broadcasts mostly youth-oriented fare such as music videos. News segments are limited to cultural tidbits. It is also a major venue for promoting the activities of Karimova, whose father is considered the most authoritarian leader in a region brimming with autocrats.
It's a format familiar to CTC Media, which has become one of Russia's top broadcasters with a nationwide audience of some 100 million. Its two Russian channels -- CTC and Domashny -- are overwhelmingly entertainment stations, with Domashny targeting a "mostly female audience," according to a company profile.
With CTC Media set to secure a reign of fluff on the airwaves in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, not everyone sees overt political motives behind the deals.
Initial reports put the price of Channel 31 at $130 million-$150 million, but some sources said CTC Media paid just $65 million -- about half the market price. The independent Kazakh weekly "Respublika" and freeas.kz speculated the rest was or will be paid "under the table." Channel 31 reportedly belonged to Nazarbaev's chief of staff, Bolat Utemuratov, before it was acquired by CTC Media.
The Ukrainian website prschik.com recently quoted CTC Media's CEO, Aleksandr Rodnyansky, as saying that his company's new channels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are projected to generate some $460 million-$480 million in first-year revenues. That is likely to grow as television enjoys a lion's share of both advertising markets, growing by 40-45 percent annually in Kazakhstan compared to 25 to 30 percent in Russia.
Yuri Mizinov, a popular Kazakh Internet journalist who runs the independent website zonakz.net, says the profit motive is indeed driving the deals, although he acknowledges Kazakh viewers are unlikely to profit. "I would not say CTC Media has a very high-quality content, unlike some other Russian television channels," he said.
As for viewers' opinions, one Uzbek youth wrote on a readers' forum (doda-forum.uz) that CTC Media's is a good move because Uzbek television stations are some 30 years behind Russian ones in terms of technology and content. Another wondered if the content will be different from other Russian programs and if it will take into account the "local mentality." He said he hopes it does not as he is "fed up" with Uzbek programming.
But a visitor to one Kazakh forum (zakon.kz) wrote recently that CTC Media would simply bring "dumb humor and endless soap operas." He suggested that Kazakh viewers, rather than being better informed, would be flooded with Russian fluff.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report)