Oleg Solodov: ‘I am against a term ‘information war’

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It seems that an idea of a new Latvian (Baltic, European) channel for Russians was dead before its birth. No wonder. Studies of TV audience have shown that the majority of ‘Russian watchers’ do have common sense, and that existing media in Latvia are able to provide objectivity and pluralism of opinions. Nonetheless, preoccupied Latvian politicians still seem to searching for ‘the hand of Kremlin’ around them. Open City (Открытый город) spoke with the chairman of the Baltijas Mediju Alianse, Oleg Solodov, about the chronic complexes of some experts.

 70% of Russian speakers in Latvia prefer Western news

Oleg, you don’t usually spoil journalists with interviews. However recently, to be honest, you did surprise with a real sensation. In you conversation with Diena correspondent, you said that 70% of Russian speakers in Latvia prefer Western news and only 30% actually agree with Kremlin. Where did you get this data?

It was a poll of top-50 Latvian mass media experts. They were given a questionnaire comprised of 200 Latvian media outlets and were offered to select, which of them are pro-Russian, extremely pro-Russian, pro-Western and extremely pro-Western – four options of answers. Then the results were matched with the media ratings and it was discovered that all in all pro-Russian media is watched and read by 30%.

Do you consider your own channels to be pro-Russian or pro-Western?

If you take the volume of our content, then, of course, we have more of the Russian one, it’s not often that we buy Ukrainian programs, which are in Russian and their content doesn’t differ from the Russian ones. But since First Baltic Channel has got an alternative, Latvian point of view, I consider it to be more neutral. NTV shows more of TV series, Russian content is dominating there, and therefore you may call it pro-Russian. But, I’ll repeat, generally the ratio between viewers, listeners and readers, who choose pro-Russian or pro-Western media, is 30% up against 70%. So there’s nothing to be afraid of really.

So what do you link the Latvian politicians’ accusations against Russian-language TV channels, which are heard pretty often, with?

I think that it has mainly to do with competition on the market. We really only have two players – our media holding Baltijas Mediju Alianse and Swedish MTG TV Latvia. You can consider LTV to be the third one, but they want to remove commercial adverts from it, so let it be just two. Clearly everyone wants to acquire a bigger share of the market by taking advantage of geopolitical situations or something else.

Television in Russian language is like a hot potato right now: everyone is talking about it, some are afraid, some terrified. How do you think, are there any special characteristics of the Russian-speaking audience, that a TV manager should consider?

Probably yes. We do not impose our opinion to viewers, we are trying to anticipate it and stick to it. For instance, we were largely accused of supporting a referendum on Russian language. But we weren’t able not to, simply because a vast amount of people, especially non-citizens, were for making Russian a second state language. They are our audience and going against their opinion would be stupid and wrong. Even from the business’ point of view. We know our audience well enough, we analyse a lot and do interviews. Yes, in a sense we are dependent on our audience and we are tied to it. Just as in restaurant, where there are always people, who visit it frequently, – these are their customers, they cherish them and won’t do anything against them.

Nonetheless, you can’t deny that lately the news has become a battlefield of an information war and thereby television is not so much a mass media outlet, but a mass propaganda tool…

I am against the term “information war”. Because war means shooting and killing. It would be more correct, perhaps, to call it a confrontation of media groups. In this case, if you look geopolitically, it is pro-Western media against pro-Russian, who have diametrically opposite points of view. Our news service isn’t trying to emphasize one or another, we are trying to bring objective information and, most importantly, pluralism of the opinions is observed.

Euronews, which you’ve recently added to your program net, has it added anything or was it a necessary measure to balance the Western outlook with Russian one?

More so, of course, to balance, we were constantly being told that we broke the pluralism of opinions and so on. I think that First Baltic Channel is exceptionally great regarding this issue. Look, we’ve got Russian news, followed by Latvian news, where any politician can comment on what Zhirinovsky could’ve said, therefore the pluralism of opinions does exist. Plus, we even added Euronews to reflect the whole situation. I don’t see it with our competitors, other Latvian channels, don’t see Russia’s opinion on some question, they are all blowing the same whistle.

Why isn’t Swedish MTG called ‘hand of Kremlin‘?

Do you feel an increased attention of the power to you? Is monitoring as strict as it was?

Of course. And had they been able to find anything, we would have been incriminated for on any occasion. Surely we are doing our best, we don’t break any laws.  If the existing goal is not to shut us down, it is to create problems and we do know where is coming from…

Where from?

I believe there are two sides – competitions and politicians that are looking for PR, because the anti-Russia topic is very current amongst Latvian politicians. It is rather simple – simply repeating that the Russians are coming and by doing so scoring points to become a Member of Parliament.

You just got a license for the next 10 years. Can you sleep peacefully now?

Surely not. License for 10 years is great, but you can’t forget that there are mechanisms that allow one to take the license away, no one has canceled those.

You deal with Russian content, same news… FBC takes the news as they are or are they filtered in some way?

We always ensure to view the news before they air. We also have a specific person who transcripts the news and I get it in the evening so it would be clear who said what and where we might face problems tomorrow.

Nonetheless, accusations against Russian channels still remain…

But mind the difference between allegations against us and our competitors. Why am I talking about the competitors? Because RTR-Planet is broadcasted by MTG, they are placing the ads, but it is a purely Kremlin channel, there are no doubts. And we are broadcasting other Russian channel, however all eyes are on us. Because of that I conclude: our group gets a biased treatment, despite our capital being Latvian.

But RTR-Planet was temporarily closed in Latvia…

Nevertheless no one is calling MTG a ‘Kremlin’s hand’. How are we different from MTG? We are buying content of a Russian production and then we are being labeled for buying such content. You could as easily say: everybody using Gazprom’s are Kremlin’s agents.

I won’t even ask the secret of a commercial success since it’s clear –- TV shows, films, etc., produced in Russia are of better quality than the products from the Baltic producers.  So, is it all a matter of content?

Surely qualitative content is on the TV channel’s success elements. But nobody forbids our competitors to buy the same one yet they aren’t. In Estonia lots of Russian content is being bought, it’s translated, filtered and Estonians do watch Russian TV series.

For several months there have been talks on necessity of establishing a government-made Russian-language TV channel.  Is there, in your opinion, any reason for such channel?

I doubt that an idea on its own will change anything on the market. Well, it might have a 1% share, maximum – 1,5%. Even an empty fridge gets opened 3-4 times a day. From a commercial point of view, it’s senseless. Especially since they want to remove advert from state channels. So, there’s no future. Such channel will be highly expensive, because if you, say, buy content from Russia, there are big issues now, especially with the crisis going on. Channel One produces only for themselves, RTR likewise, they’ve got international version, which allows them to monetize their content pretty well. And independent companies that are creating content have decreased their production by 90%.  Almost went down to zero. I don’t understand what’s there to buy.

Making our own product? Our Russian-language journalism is especially weak. There’s nothing to hide, there are no people, no one to teach, and who will be doing it anyways?! And salaries, directors, lighting – all of this costs money, and then it turns out the gross purchase of a Russian TV series is cheaper than making your own product. Economically, it is a deadlock.

I understand that the main goal of such channel isn’t commerce, but a counter-propaganda, a battle for the minds. But to increase 70% of pro-Western viewers to 90%, you would need 10-15 of such channels and the investments would be completely different. Second way is to shut everything down and create a unitary point of view for the whole country. Period.

Plans on Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia.

Tell me, are you in contact with the head of Channel One? Are you friends?

Friends – no, in contact – yes.

Over the last year, did the Russia’s side’s perception of you and Latvia change?

Do you feel apprehension: that you are Western, not ours?

I don’t think so, because we’ve got a history – turning 20 soon. Firstly, trust, secondly, we’ve got purely commercial relationships. And if they’ve been successful for 20 years, what questions you may have?

But how are your plans moving with regards to opening new channels in neighbor countries?

We’ve set ourselves a goal to open one channel each year. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to air a channel in Lithuania in 2015 due investment atmosphere. Then we moved to Estonia and we will be launching a channel over there.

When?

I think, in October.

Will it be in Russian language?

No. It will be Russian content with Estonian subtitles, fully focused on the Estonian audience. Channel will be entertaining, no news. There will be some inter-programs with Estonian sound and all the adverts will be in Estonian. Why did we come to this? Because we saw Russian products, such as TV series, on Estonian channels and the ratings were growing and showed very good indicator. So we decided to launch its own channel. I do not know what will happen, but the figures show that it should work. We’ve surveyed the public in Estonia about which is better – voice in two voices or titles? And all the Estonians say: let there be titles. Because for the ordinary Estonians, I am not talking about the politicians, the original language of the product is not important – they are so used to having titles that they don’t notice the language. So we chose titles not because it is a little more expensive, but because it’s not needed.

What is the tendency like in Latvia?

Voiceover is necessary in Latvia, so it is for Lithuanians.

You are an ambitious person, used to setting the bar high. What are your goals at the moment?

We want to go beyond Baltic countries, export our products further – to Finland, Poland, Czech, Slovakia. We’ve got work experience with Lithuania and Estonia. I don’t see a problem in making the same channel in Poland, as in Estonia. You could do a voiceover in Polish. Such project promises great rentability, since we are buying content from Russia for three countries anyways, we will be buying for four – and wholesale will be cheaper.

Bilingual channel isn’t possible

You’ve tried it with the Latvian audience when you were making programs in two languages, but then stopped. Why?

You see, you can’t do bilingual programs for one channel.

But it’s not rare to see bilingual broadcast in Ukraine…

Ukraine is a different story, 99% of population speaks Russian there. Then again, take a look at what competitors do Ukrainian channels have – they’ve switched off all of the Russian channels, so no matter what you’ll be showing them – they will watch since there’s no alternative.

Market is changing and so should we

Is it hard to make business on such small market?

Hold on, small market or big market – there is no different except for the amount money, so you still need to be working the same as anywhere else. We’re not complaining about the market. For all the years of our existence we’ve been earning more in comparison to other mass media, LNT and TV3. They’ve only existed on advertisements, but us – ads and distribution.

Of course, lots have change at the moment. When we started, we had a proportion of 80% local advertisers and 20% Western networks. Then 50:50, and now, probably, 95 to 5 in the westerners’ advantage. So the local business is closing down almost entirely. This is bad, of course, for the country, for the budget. But from an income’s point of view this is good for us since it provides stability. We understand, that Unilever, Procter – aren’t here just for a day, they know planning. One Procter’s video costs 100-200 thousand dollars. They produce it, adapt it for all countries, entire agencies are working on slogans, changing something each time. And here – is it a car service? TV advert format isn’t for them. And saying that something might come back… The government should be supporting small and medium businesses from the point of view of tax, bank lending, yet here they are trying to tax each penny to shut small companies down. What for, I have no clue…

What’s your opinion on Internet television? Is it threatening traditional TV?

Linear, classic TV, in fact, today makes up about 80%, maybe, a bit more. In America Internet broadcast share reached 52%. But there was a rebound and now classic TV is watched by 54%. People have started to come back from Internet to TV.

Here, apparently, linear television won’t be able to remain 80% viewers share?

Most likely Latvia will be developing according to the same technological standards as the rest of the world, except maybe a bit slower, than America. We will also reach 50%, the audience will simply switch from one technological process to another, but the viewers themselves will remain.

Are you getting ready and adjusting for it to happen?

Of course, we’re launching a new project, where all our channels will hit tablets, phones and Internet. I think that local linear television will only remain because there are conservative and modernist people. And such division will be passed from one generation to another. 50 to 50 is an ideal picture, and if we’ll the present both ways, we won’t lose anything.

Of course, there’s one commercial nuance: adverts which the audience will be watching in the Internet may not go with the cable one. But it’s technology. It may not be suitable today, but it will tomorrow. I think that linear and Internet-broadcast will become one someday, it will be monetizing and the television will only benefit from it. Because content should be produced, it’s the most important element. Internet is a form of content delivery, and whoever owns the content, will stay on top.

Facebook and Google will conquer all..

So you don’t believe that the Internet will completely devour traditional television?

I have read such fantasy with analytics that in our future, in 20 years, we will be coming back, that social media won’t make it more than 15 years.

But it’s exactly a fantasy. For now it seems like global social media won’t leave any space for the local Internet-platforms.

There is such danger. We had a social platform One.lv, market’s leader, then Facebook came and that was it. I think that the top news publishers, for instance Delfi, will meet the same fate as One.lv. For now they exist thanks to people who are used to reading the website. But their entire income comes from adverts. Now, imagine for a second, if Facebook or Google, will come to our market in the same speed of their advertisement’s growth. I doubt there will be anything left from Delfi. Only the ones interested in political advertising will stay with Delfi, but it’s not enough profit to exist. That why, truthfully speaking, I don’t not very see e-commerce in terms of advertising sales in the territory of Latvia. Huge investments, but with what financial return?

For example, after 5 years of Facebook and Google in Latvia it might turn out that advertising won’t be worth even a penny. And plus they are more effective because the entire audience is using them. And that, I think, is now the biggest danger.

What is Facebook doing now in Africa? They are launching drones and want to distribute Internet free of charge. Imagine high-altitude drone being powered by the sun and essentially becoming a router by distributing Internet. Same with the smartphone. And Africa is just the beginning. Facebook wants to distribute free Internet throughout the world; they claimed the program until 2020. I asked my technology specialists if it’s even possible. I was told that it’s not realistic. But after an experiment in Africa, I think it’s quite possible. They could cover an entire Latvia with ten drones and control everything. And from there on – free Internet, if you are, of course, using Facebook, free television, etc. Our local operators – Lattelecom, Baltcom – won’t be needed anymore, since everything will be distributed by one single provider.

You are painting a scary picture for the local business…

I don’t want to spread any panic. I just want you pay attention so that the men in our government, who think strategically and look after the country, also thought about globalization – how important it might be and if it should be afraid of. After all, from this point of view, globalization is worse than the loss of independence. You can bring independence back with multiple referendums. Yet technological processes are almost irreversible.

Tatjana Fast