Soviet cable TV is primitive but it finds eager audience

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SVERDLOVSK, U.S.S.R. -- Nikolai Yefremov, a truck driver for the housing construction unit where Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin started his career, comes home bone tired and does what?

Like millions of Russians, he checks out what's on cable TV.

"I watch the discussions on 'Political Club.' I watch the movies, but they're all martial arts and erotica," said Mr. Yefremov, 24. "I'd like to see more films with car chases."

This particular summer evening, Mr. Yefremov has dropped by the modest cable studios of Sverdlovsk's Youth Housing Complex, down the street from his apartment building, to place a free televised ad seeking the return of his lost driver's license.

In a country where there is one telephone for every eight people and where indoor plumbing is still an urban luxury, it may come as a surprise that cable television is taking the Soviet Union by storm.

It began in 1985, when the Youth Housing Complex in this industrial city of 1.4 million in the Ural Mountains pioneered Soviet cable.

It used black-and-white, reel-to-reel videotape and a camera with no sound to reach an audience of a few thousand, but Communist Party chieftains were nonetheless apoplectic.

"They asked, 'Who are you to take the mass media into your own hands?' " recalled Alexander Mikh, 39, one of the founders of both the Youth Housing Complex and its cable system. The country's first cable TV service endured poverty, censorship and KGB harassment before it became the pillar of the community it is today.

Since that start in Sverdlovsk, hundreds of neighborhood-based cable networks have sprouted in cities from Minsk to Vladivostok.

Now there are at least 500 Soviet cable networks with about 1.5 million subscribing households, so more than 5 million people may be watching cable, said Vitaly V. Rozhko, general director of a cable company started by the state television network.

Here, as in the United States, cable visionaries dream of community media, information produced by the people for the people.

But in most places, such idealist intentions are undone by the lure of trashy Western movies, irresistible to people deprived for decades of the joy of trash.

Even in the Youth Housing Complex, a unique community built and run by idealists, one recent evening's program illustrates the split personality of Soviet cable. It begins with the greeting "Good evening, Yekaterinburgites," using the pre-revolutionary name for Sverdlovsk, and goes on:

7 p.m.: Classified ads (such as: "Found: food rationing cards for June, with set of keys," "Will exchange two tires for HD for soft children's furniture.")

7:15 p.m.: Cartoons.

8 p.m.: "Half-hour on Health" (local doctors talking diet and fitness).

8:30 p.m.: "What They're Studying in School" (help with homework from the neighborhood school).

9 p.m.: "Video Gazette" (community news).

9:30 p.m.: "Die Hard" (U.S. action film).

11:15 p.m.: "Harry and the Hendersons" (U.S. comedy in which family adopts a legendary giant mountain creature).

Despite the low-brow movie fare, spiced up by soft-porn selections on some late nights, the heavy dose of public service in the Youth Housing Complex cable program is testimony to its origins.

This community of 6,000 people in a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings began as a public-spirited, do-it-yourself operation. Starting in 1980, a group of young Sverdlovsk residents, sick of the decade-long wait for an apartment, took leave from their jobs, underwent crash courses in carpentry and bricklaying and started building their own homes.

The idea spread to many other cities. The Sverdlovsk MZhK, as it is known for its Russian initials, became a thriving village of Soviet yuppies, said to have a crime rate 30 times lower and a divorce rate 60 times lower than Sverdlovsk's average.

In fact, the MZhK is a victim of its own success, since the optimistic couples who moved in averaged 2.4 children apiece, much more than the national average.

Children swarm over the ship, airplane and stone castle built as imaginative playgrounds, the local school has to operate in three shifts, and the apartments are getting too small.

The first families of the MZhK were close friends, Mr. Mikh said. But as the community grew, the organizers started a newsletter to keep everyone in touch.

"People got lazy and didn't read them. Then we put them in mailboxes, but a lot got thrown out. So we decided to try cable TV," he said.

They scraped together a little equipment and started a crude bulletin-board operation. It quickly caught the eye of the Communist overlords, who called in the state television monopoly, which offered to take it over and do it up right for 2 million rubles.

Fighting off such assistance, the organizers agreed to form a "Council of Communists" to censor the broadcasts. About half of what they wanted to show was cut.

Pressure was turned up further in 1987, after Mr. Yeltsin was ousted from top party posts in Moscow, and the cable network in his hometown came to his defense. An announcer read a 17-page letter of support for the former Sverdlovsk party leader and invited residents to come and sign.

That was when the KGB went into action -- using surrogates, Mr. Mikh said. First it sent firefighters, who took one look at the modest electronic equipment and announced that broadcasts had to be suspended until a metal fire escape was built to the tiny third-floor studio.

Then the finance inspector was sent to find rule violations in the staff's handling of proceeds, since they had started charging 2 rubles a month for a subscription. Next the local police fraud squad showed up, demanding to look at documents.

"We always ran into the problem that there was no precedent. Ministry of Culture documents from the 1930s, for some reason, made no mention of cable TV," Mr. Mikh said sarcastically.

Since then, censorship and harassment have ceased, though the system was sued unsuccessfully by a local candidate who got 1 percent of the vote after his campaign speeches were shown on cable TV.

Now the MZhK cable system is preparing to install feedback units in subscribers' apartments to poll the 28,000 viewers on both political and practical questions. The same wiring will double as a burglar alarm, with police being notified instantaneously when a break-in occurs.

Still, one threat looms for the cable mini-networks. Virtually none of them pays royalties for showing the American and other foreign films that dominate their programming. Mr. Mikh says his Sverdlovsk system now buys films on video disc "from some Poles" for 1,500 rubles each, about $50 at the market rate.

Such brazen piracy is also practiced by the state television company, which until recently showed without permission "excerpts" of U.S. films on Moscow TV -- leaving off only the credits and a few minutes of action. U.S. filmmakers retaliated by threatening to boycott Soviet film festivals.

Now both the Soviet and Russian Federation parliaments have passed laws aimed at cracking down on such piracy. They may, in the process, undermine the commercial basis of the little cable networks.

That sounds fine with Mr. Rozhko, head of the cable company founded by the state television monopoly in Moscow.

"What's our goal? Civilized cable," he said. "The pirates should be prosecuted. They don't understand that by denying authors' royalties, they're cutting off the branch they stand on."

In addition, Mr. Rozhko said, the mini-networks, with their preference for low-budget pictures, are wrecking the reputation of U.S. films.

"A few years ago, everybody went to a U.S. film with high expectations," he said. "Now the pirates are giving everyone a distorted view of U.S. cinema and culture."

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