Ellen Mickiewicz

The Medium and the Message: Soviet Style

VTR Date: September 25, 1988

Guest: Mickiewicz, Ellen


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ellen Mickiewicz
Title: “The Medium and the Message”
VTR: 9/25/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. As an American historian, a generation ago I had already thought and taught a good deal about the impact of media – print and electronic, — on our own nation’s policies and politics. Then the Benton Foundation and the US State Department – at different times and for different purposes – made it possible for me to visit the Soviet Union to study first hand its burgeoning televisions structure.

In the summer of 1963, scholar – later United States Senator – S.I. Hayakawa had already offered his provocative, truly prescient insights into the cause-and-effect relationship between what he called “the great and revolutionary” impact of everyday American television and the hugely heightened urgency here of Black demands for equality: a revolution, if you will, of aroused expectations. Then there in the USSR I saw first-hand what I thought of as the Soviets’ very early perception and deliberate use of the medium’s agenda-setting, value-legitimating, socializing power. After all, Lenin himself had understood the control possibilities of that earlier non-print medium – radio – calling it the “Newspaper without paper or distance” and directing that it be used to inspire the proletariat with social ideals, political awareness and party loyalty. And I thought the Russians were using television as something of a surrogate experience 00 a new opiate of the masses 00 despite Hayakawa’s recognition of the medium’s destabilizing impact here in America.

At least, when I asked the programming chief of the soviet all-Nation Television Service what relationship there was between the Russian public’s viewing preferences and the programs actually aired, he demanded, “Professor Heffner, when you go into your classroom, do you ask your students what you should teach them”? In other words, Soviet television 00 like radio and print – had always been seen as an instrument of public policy and social control…and used as such.

Well, that was a generation ago. And our question today, perhaps even more important now than ever before – therefore demanding a particularly careful response – is whether current Soviet media policies are the same or essentially different.

And that’s why a new Oxford University Press volume proves so very interesting: Split Signals, Television and Politics in the Soviet Union. And it’s why I’ve invited its author to The Open Mind. Dr. Ellen Mickiewicz, Director of the Soviet Media Program of the Carter Center at Emory University.

The Professor and her colleagues have been carefully watching and analyzing Soviet television via satellite. And I know that they don’t – as too many ethno-centric Western observers and commentators once did – simply dismiss the Russian medium with humorous cataloging of “What Ivan Watches”, or poke fun at what most of us would consider its heavy-handedness. So let’s find out what her objective and her colleagues objective is. What is it? Why are you watching the Soviets so closely?

Mickiewicz: Well this is the time to watch them certainly. If ever there was a time when this power that has occupied so much of our attention, justly, over so much time is changing, so radically, one of the best windows on that change is television. Television has changed extraordinarily. There are elements in your description that I would say still obtain. But the changes have been coming fast, and they’ve been coming almost unpredictably in a way that I’m sure the audience maybe can’t even assimilate as rapidly as they’re being produced. But now is the time to watch and through television you can see those changes.

Heffner: Has there been a change from the essential nature of the medium used as a legitimating, value setting weapon in the soviet arsenal?

Mickiewicz: Weapon is, I think, the word that I might disagree with.

Heffner: A cold war…a word…

Mickiewicz: (Laughter) Because weapon implies action on some inert mass, and I don’t think television can ever be effective, and I think the Soviets have seen this, unless that, that message in some way meets demands. Unless you reach an audience then you can’t really have your message appropriate to the needs and demands and psychological predispositions of that audience. I think that is one of the mistakes that the theorists of Soviet television used to make, they don’t any more, which is that if you simply saturate a population with some kind of consistent, standardized message, well that’s, that’s all you have to do.

Heffner: You mean that back when I was there people really weren’t watching? They had no choice if there was going to be television at all because they couldn’t’ watch anything else.

Mickiewicz: That’s true. Certainly the audiences were not nearly what they are now. I think now, and when I say “now” I mean something like the past seven, eight, nine years only, some twenty or more years behind the United States, only now is the population really saturated where you have an average audience of one hundred and fifty million or two hundred million for a particular program. It is, I think, it is the first really mass medium in soviet history, and that’s happened now. And do they…are they better audiences than they were before? Absolutely. I think…

Heffner: what do you mean “better”? Bigger?

Mickiewicz: They’re bigger, and they seem to be much, much more attentive. When I say “Seem to be”, I have one qualification. As a social scientist I’d say, “Well, where are the surveys, where are the Nielsen ratings, how do you know”? And they don’t really know. It’s something…one part of television that’s really very underdeveloped. When I was there, just this summer, talking to the people who are in charge of their research operation, they said that “well, yes they are going to do something like Nielsen boxes” distributed randomly and there will be diaries kept, and there will be surveys, and they’re going to know more about what’s happening. But the fact remains that they’ve started this revolution of television without having anything in place to assess it and to evaluate it.

Heffner: But you know we assess television because ABC wants to know who’s watching ABC or NBC or CBS…

Mickiewicz: Yes.

Heffner: …at any one moment. The soviets don’t have to be concerned about that, do they?

Mickiewicz: No they’re not, they’re not in the business of selling the time or selling viewers to advertisers. But they are, getting back to the question you asked earlier, they are in the business of educating, as they see it. Weapon I think may be the wrong word, but certainly instrument of molding, of education. That is their mission, and that is their clearly stated self-conscious mission. Yes, they’re still doing that, and you can’t do that unless you get through…

Heffner: You mean you have to do what the people…give the people what they want?

Mickiewicz: To some degree. I think the dilemma is how far you go. If you don’t give them anything of what they want, if you simply lecture and read from your notes on Marxism, Leninism, you don’t reach them.

Heffner: No, but you know, I remember…I don’t know whether you remember a program there, a kind of mixture of the old Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson shows, “Blue Flame” that was on, if I remember correctly, on Saturday nights? And it was rather risqué, a lot of décolletage, army Generals, Admirals and entertainers, and extremely popular. The message was getting through, there wasn’t any alternative. It certainly, even then back in the early days that I know about, wasn’t all “how many tractors were produced in factory 127 this past year”.

Mickiewicz: But, the message, what has to get across, that has changed very dramatically. Under Gorbachev what the mission of television is, is no less than to prepare the way for a revolution, and that is to bring that large Soviet audience into some understanding that will be felt intellectually, psychologically, viscerally even, to some kind of understanding of the enormous changes that have to be made. Changes in work, changes in education, in law, and how, how an individual lives in society, and that enormous plan for mobilization, that is different that puts quite a different task, I think, before television. So, now it’s not the entertainment shows that draw people at all, it’s rather the public affairs and the news.

Heffner: It was so interesting reading Split Signals to learn of the disparity between the percentages of our American air time devoted to news, and particularly word of the world outside, and the percentages devoted in the Soviet Union. So it’s really, really truly an educational device.

Mickiewicz: Well, I think, I think they’re certainly trying for that. An interestingly enough the changes that are the most dramatic, and the most effective, are the ones that are coming out of the Youth Department, adolescents, teenagers. That audience is being given programming that is contentious, that is extremely dramatic. The editing is very rapid. The graphics are new and modern. And mainly it’s giving a forum for young people to berate, scold, ridicule the officials who have control over their lives, and this has been galvanizing for many of the people in the Soviet Union. Much of the Left Wing, not dissident exactly, but the Left Wing Movements in the soviet union composed of younger people cite those programs as being the most influential in their own lives.

Heffner: Of course, you have the great advantage over those in this country who like to talk about soviet television. You have the great advantage of actually picking the signals off the satellite, and seeing what they are doing…

Mickiewicz: Yes.

Heffner: …so you can analyze what it is they’re doing. Do you do it from soup to nuts? The beginning of the signal to the end?

Mickiewicz: Yes. Well, we don’t take the whole broadcast day, that’s long, and time-consuming and manpower consuming. We do bring in First Network or First Program, which is the most important, the more important of the two actually.

Heffner: That’s the All-Nation one, right?

Mickiewicz: There are two national ones, but First Program is the older one, the one that has more prestige, and carries the socio-political programs of considerable note. And we can pick it up and tape really whatever it is we want during the day. We don’t do the whole day’s sweep.

Heffner: I hope you’re going to at some time, find the resources to enable you to do so.

Mickiewicz: That’s what we would have to find.

Heffner: Well, I would think that there would be individuals and corporations and foundations in this country, and perhaps even the United States government that would be very much concerned to know what goes on from early morning to late at night.

Mickiewicz: Well, there are a number of foundations who have supported us, and who have started us on our way. One needs, for this kind of thing, fluency in Russian and many hours of monitoring.

Heffner: Let me ask this…you get your information from what’s on the air. Is there any sense, is there something you know about a five year plan or a ten year plan or a twenty year plan in the Soviet Union that relates to the use or the uses of television?

Mickiewicz: I do from talks I’ve had with officials in the television industry. One of the projects that I’m involved in, together with the Annenberg School of Communications and Moscow State University, involves looking at content in both countries of television programming and programming decision-making. As we’ve spent many hours in the television industry talking to people about that, one of their weakest points, they say and that they’re going to change in the future, will be the whole entertainment side, which is, I think compared to Western European countries and the United States, very much underdeveloped and where they, they really lose attention of the audience. They want to buy more programs elsewhere, they want co-productions, and they really want to beef up that side of television.

Heffner: And we, as they are thinking cosmically about the medium, I guess we’re still not doing that at all. There’s no means or device, or central, perhaps that’s a very good thing, no central planning point for us to do it.

Mickiewicz: Well, (Laughter) that’s, that’s true. And I think that that’s part of the…a different notion of responsiveness. I think the soviet television has not been responsive to its audiences. It’s trying to become responsive, although it still doesn’t know what those demands really are.

Heffner: But wait a minute, you say “responsive to the audiences”, but aren’t you also saying “responsive” within the context of an overall plan and purposefulness that we do not have in this country?

Mickiewicz: I don’t know that we…it seems to me that instead of an overall plan, we have a wider degree of choice, that there are segments of television for different segments of the audience, presumably programming for different areas, different interests, and that gives, on cable at least, certainly a large number of choices. Soviet Union still has rather few choices.

Heffner: But, but I guess the question I’m asking is whether within the context of the soviet system, as we have known it, and as we can project from glasnost, from all of the things that are going on, isn’t all media product purposeful?

Mickiewicz: Yes.

Heffner: All right. And here it is not, you’re saying there are a great variety of purposes…

Mickiewicz: A variety of purposes.

Heffner: All right.

Mickiewicz: That’s right.

Heffner: But serving the national interest is a characteristic of the soviet system, not ours.

Mickiewicz: Well, it’s true, but it depends on how you define the national interest. Soviet television has faithfully served the national interest throughout the course of the changing leadership periods, all of which, with the exception of Lenin, all of which are currently being denounced. So that you have an industry that does faithfully act as the advocate of and purveyor of the message of a leadership which may or may not be in the best interests of the soviet people. According to Gorbachev virtually the entire period since Lenin has been an unfortunately blip on the radar, that is, it’s gone off the tracks. And in all that period of time, of course, all of the media were faithfully including the leadership demands in their own work schedules.

Heffner: The medium, as I saw it, and it’s been many, many years, was certainly to the degree that it touched upon the American experience, a very negative one. Is that still true now, as you analyze soviet television product?

Mickiewicz: I think it’s changing. I think that there are certainly aspects of America that are not attractive. There are still programs and still illusions to homelessness, to poverty, to racial problems in the United States, to what they call violations of human rights in the United States, unemployment, this all does continue. But I think there’s also something else, and that is more positive stories. I think the positive stories also have a purpose in the purposefulness of soviet television, and the purpose, I think to a large extent, is to show those kinds of examples, models, possibilities which could be transplanted to the soviet union without necessarily bringing along the whole baggage of the political and social and economic system in which they’re embedded. For example, computers, small scale agro-businesses, McDonalds, fast food chains, they’re very positive stories about a lot of aspects of American life, but they’re the ones that can be used for examples.

Heffner: You see when I was there it, it…that was half the picture. That half wasn’t on the screen, the positive examples. You did see a comparatively impressive amount of material about the United States, but all of it was about the problem areas as you describe them, and the same problem areas, having to do with race relations, having to do with poverty, having to do with homelessness then, and I’m sure, as you say, now. But, you know, I had been so interested in the Hayakawa metaphor and then I found in your book, in two places, not…it’s not far to say contradictory statements…but statements that could be considered as such, and I wondered where you, where you come down on this question. You write here that ”television also portrays a world that makes the hardships of rural life harder to bear”. In a sense that was the Hayakawa position, you see the good life on television, whether on commercials or entertainment programs and you’re not part of that. In this country, where we go out to get what we want, there are an awful lot of people who went out to get what they saw the rest of America enjoying. But you, earlier in the book, quote, you say “Hardly less grandiose and much more serious were the remarks of a Deputy Director of soviet Television and Radio who ascribed to the influence of television some remarkable effects. He said that ‘television was responsible for lowering the rate of migration away from remote settlements, particularly from the Eastern regions of the country;”. In a sense that was the business in which the soviets or others used television as a surrogate for experience, you enjoy it, you sit and you watch and you don’t need to get up and get…

Mickiewicz: You’re mesmerized.

Heffner: …out of there.

Mickiewicz: Yes.

Heffner: Which do you think…

Mickiewicz: What’s the contradiction?

Heffner: …is more important?

Mickiewicz: You know, I think, I think in much of what we know about television there are two vectors that…

Heffner: The split signals?

Mickiewicz: The split signals…that go on simultaneously. For example, let me, let me switch for a moment to the ethnic question which is so much in the news. On the one hand, as you know, over the long run television tends to standardize and to erode differences, we know that, and that all of these ethnic distinctions little by little erode in some kind of common wash that television paints over us. But in the short run, too, it can exacerbate those differences, say as is happening in the Soviet Union right now, with glasnost, with openness. Many of the ethnicities are calling for television in their languages, and they want control of it. So that there are contradictory tendencies. I think the same thing is true in the case of the rural areas. There’s a difference in the two parts that you cite here in the book because one of them, in Siberia, those settlements really, many of them have been people by, not natives in the area, but those who have come from Moscow sometimes after completion of university when they have to do jobs there, there are bonuses and they go there to work, and then they serve what little time they are required to and they want to leave. So that this is a migration to Siberia which is helped to stay there and to maintain its work through television, through being keyed in with that which they had left. It’s quite a different matter, i think, to talk about the rural culture as such, and there you do have what the soviet novelist Rasputin talks about these, these futureless towns, these places that have become empty or that are, will have dams built, and they’ll be just washed under them. And that’s a very serious problem, given the satisfaction in view of the tremendous agricultural problems and the food shortages In the Soviet Union.

Heffner: Well as I read Split Signals, Dr. Mickiewicz, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this wasn’t, again, as you describe the growing, what must be the growing attractiveness of soviet television, an effort to make it work overtime, to keep the lid on whatever problems there are in the soviet union, as a surrogate experience, or as…satisfying the soviet public.

Mickiewicz: But it’s not going to work unless they really tell them something, unless they’re really credible and authoritative. That is why there is much more now on the ethnic disturbances, on natural disasters and catastrophes, and to some extent, although much more limited, differences among the leadership.

Heffner: Had the soviet leaders changed their minds about the potential for direct satellite to home broadcasting and their desire as expressed in a UN Resolution to provide for prior censorship, lest our materials go willy-nilly into soviet homes, is that still the point of view?

Mickiewicz: Well, most of the world does stand for prior consent, and most of the world is nervous about what they consider to be imperialism. I think that is still their view. Whether they accept Ii as inevitable, one doesn’t know. I think, for example, with the tremendous influx of VCRs, videocassettes, they’ve almost given up the battle on that, I mean.

Heffner: You mean American, American imperialism, cultural imperialism can be brought in via videocassettes?

Mickiewicz: Well, there are still restrictions on the kinds of videocassettes, and there is still a criminal penalty for those within the Soviet Union who engage in what is called “video contraband”, but clearly the dimensions of the problem have far outstripped any ability to deal with it. Technology has just got ahead of them.

Heffner: Is it like the old days then, in radio, when Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were being listened to?

Mickiewicz: Well, i…

Heffner: Are the cassettes really being seen?

Mickiewicz: …they are being seen. The most attractive ones seem to have something to do with violence or pornography, “Rambo” for example, is a great hit. So I don’t…it’s hardly upscale entertainment that’s the most popular in the regions, at least.

Heffner: You mean it turns out, after all, that we’re really no different, the world over people embrace that kind of material?

Mickiewicz: There is a lot of escapism everywhere. It’s human.

Heffner: Is…are these videocassettes in English? Or has someone had the entrepreneurial skill to, to translate them? Although guess the action doesn’t require words.

Mickiewicz: Some words, maybe. There is one example, actually, I cite in the book of a whole concern that was marketing these contraband videotapes and where they had translators from some academic institutes who were providing the translations, and receiving in return tires and other kinds of goods that are in short supply.

Heffner: What do you think the future holds for television in the Soviet Union? You seem to very “up” on it, I don’t mean on top of the issue, but you seem to be very positive.

Mickiewicz: I hope no top, too (laughter).

Heffner: Right.

Mickiewicz: Well, I think it has been discovered, I think television’s been discovered as, as a medium of enormous potential and huge audiences, and I don’t think that they’re going to go backwards on that. I think it is going to be developed. How it will play, how, how they will moderate or alter it in the future, or develop it in view of the rising expectations that they, themselves, are helping to mobilize, I don’t know. But I certainly think it’s going to be developed very rapidly and continue.

Heffner: Do you think there’s still room for the kinds of articles that used to be written with the laughing “What Ivan Watches” and then the guffaws at the nature of soviet programming, in terms of our interests?

Mickiewicz: Well, there is one thing that we should realize, that unlike the audience for American television, the audience for soviet television has a very long attention span. This might be true of more than just soviet television audiences, but other places as well.

Heffner: A disciplined society, is that what we’re dealing with?

Mickiewicz: It’s partly disciplined, it’s partly that it comes so much from a book culture, and where books are still so important. And I think that what you see in soviet television are programs that demand long attention spans. I don’t think that produces guffaws, but it might produce some rustling in the seats among Americans.

Heffner: What a wonderful opportunity to impose or superimpose a book literate culture upon the television medium. Anyway, obviously there’s much food for thought here and Split Signals is a quite extraordinary introduction to this question, and I do appreciate your joining me today, Dr. Mickiewicz.

Mickiewicz: Thank you.

Heffner: Thank you so much.

Mickiewicz: It’s been a pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.