The last three years have seen a sea change in Ukrainian TV, as the industry has undergone a big wave of modernisation. It was about three years ago that the domestic industry first started concentrating on producing its own content, a move that touched off a more wholesale rethinking of how the industry in Ukraine should work. The tycoons who owned the local TV stations started investing in their properties, and especially in boosting native production. An audience that was used to watching TV shows and movies imported from Russia and the West, and that was hungry for programming that reflected its own values and worldview, welcomed these changes in a big way.
Markets and Niches
As the advertising market has boomed, television stations have been competing to seize the largest pieces of the lucrative pie, leading to a period of mergers and consolidations. "The channels are beginning to consolidate into media holdings, in which the biggest companies swallow up the smaller," says Natalya Ligachova, editor in chief of 'Telekritika', a Web and print publication devoted to the media industry. "The enlargement means that big media groups are bringing in resources and money that their owners are using to develop the media market and create niche channels. This is giving the viewer the chance to choose and watch channels that focus on a certain subject." Ligachova emphasizes that it's easier for a major media holding to invest money in a project than it is for one of the independent channels that used to define the local TV scene.
The Ad Game
If the number of advertisers has risen in Ukraine, there still aren't enough niche channels to service them. That should change in the future, Ligachova says, but for the moment the "media market is still in its primitive stages. The owners aren't paying much attention to the money they're earning from their channels. They use them as weapons of political influence, in their struggles against other individuals." The result is that quality in the industry is generally lower than it should be, as owners are less interested in producing good work than in abusing their political and business rivals. Advertising money goes in, but not much quality programming comes out. 'Black propaganda' and compromising news sto- ries are still common on the nation's screens, a holdover from the pre-Orange Revolution days when talk of media freedom simply made industry insiders roll their eyes. There's another challenge in local TV - the people problem. Lots of skilled workers in the business move from channel to channel, and given the plethora of channels on the market, the flow of personnel moving from one place to another can have a seriously negative influence on the industry. There's simply too much flux. Still, not all niche channels are affected by this. Most are growing, and channels that previously were of more general interest are changing their policies to focus on this or that demographic group. It's all part of the growth and reallocation of resources on the media market, as advertisers adapt to new conditions. Still, things don't change in domestic television quite as fast as they do in Western television. "The Western market is clearly differentiated, and each segment has its category of advertisers," Ligachova says. "For instance, hygienic items wouldn't be sold on regular channels in the West, but on niche women's channels. Expensive cars shouldn't be advertised on channels oriented toward the lower walks of society." The point is that no matter how profitable ads might be, they'll be more efficient if they reach their target audience. The idea that 'more viewers are better' doesn't carry much water anymore. It's no longer about boosting ratings, it's about getting in touch with the correct viewer niche.
In the past, most programmes that ran on Ukrainian TV were imported from abroad. In recent years, however, domestic production has risen, and it's been having some success. "No owner wants to do something unprofitable," Iigachova says. "Obviously, it's difficult to create something that brings in money from the very beginning. But the more the market improves, the more network owners are realising that sometimes building a channel's image is more important than just squeezing money from a project. As a result, they start investing in projects that are popular but not necessarily profitable." Iigochova goes on to explain that the popular show 'Dancing with the Stars' (now in its third season) cost the channel 1+1 a million dollars for the license, and made no money at first. However, now the show is huge among Ukrainians, and more popular here than its analogues are in Russia or the United States. "Investing in your reputation is also a good investment, and one that will make you a profit, even if it comes a bit later," she says. According to the ratings, Ukrainians like serious political talk-shows ('Svoboda Slova', 'Svoboda Savika Shustera"), serials (Tatyanin Den', 'Soldaty', 'Kadety), and quality entertainment ('Dancing with the Stars', 'Dancing on Ice', 'Star Factory", 'Dom 2'). It's also clear that a typical show's lifespan is two or three years - just long enough for a new show to come along and displace it. Ukrainian viewers will remember shows like 'Posledniy Geroy' or 'Bolshoy Brat', which were big several years ago but subsequently sank like stones. "The Western reality show boom won't appeal to the Ukrainian audience, for which the show 'Okna', with Dmitry Nagieyev, represents the limit," Iigachova says. "Our viewers aren't ready for that sort of cruelty." The fact is that the Western media market is far older and more saturated than Ukraine's, and that Western viewers tend to be more knowing and jaded when it comes to what they watch: it takes more to win their attention and to shock them. For better or worse, Ukrainians haven't reached that stage of knowingness about their media yet - they still prefer televised 'beauty5 to reality-show scandal. Besides, compared to Western viewers they're not as interested in thinking about other people. Says Iigachova, "Even the 'Star Factory format, which a lot of channels bought, wasn't as successful with Ukrainians as it was expected to be. The problem is that we're more interested in dwelling on ourselves. That same goes for our political talk shows."
Digital TV Rising
The new wave in TV is digital production, considered to be the most efficient method. Though hampered by the technological backwardness of its Soviet past, Ukraine has to take a great leap forward into the digital future, or else fall behind. "If our country doesn't somehow get into digital TV, somehow it will drop out of the world media scene," Iigachova says. "Digital can, of course, co-exist with cable, but it's a matter of technological progress." The television of the future will let the viewer decide what programme he wants to watch at any mo-
Ukrainians still prefer televised 'beauty' to reality-show 'cruelty' and scandal
ment, and any time. If Ukraine can keep up with the rest of the world - and the indications are that it can - its television industry will soon be distributing programming according to carefully delineated media market niches. "Scientists say that by 2050 we'll see people on this planet all living online," says MTV General Director Yevgen Stupka. "I think television will be more focused on the actual viewer, not on mysterious ratings and math formulas that don't square with real figures. And no rating exists that indicates how much a viewer believes in a channel, which is the most important thing."
Today, even Ukraine's most stable and popular channels are facing modernisation. "The leading Ukrainian channel Inter, which was earlier so conservative, has new management that's talking about rejuvenating its audience," Iigachova says. "Meanwhile, 1+1 is now focusing mostly on entertainment." In other words, the channels have differentiated themselves from each other, each carving out its own territory. These days, in Ukraine's rapidly developing media sector, it's all about finding a distinctive niche.