Television in the Soviet Union
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Television in the Soviet Union was owned by the state and was under its tight control and censorship.
The governing body in the former Soviet Union was "USSR State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting or USSR Gosteleradio (Государственный комитет по телевидению и радиовещанию СССР, Гостелерадио СССР), which was in charge both of Soviet Central Television and USSR Gostelradio.
Soviet TV production was classified into central (USSR Gostelradio and Soviet Central Television (TsT SSSR, Russian: Центральное телевидение Гостелерадио СССР, ЦТ СССР)), republican, and regional broadcasting.
Initially TV was governed by the All-Union Committee for Radiofication and Radio Broadcasting at the USSR Sovnarkom (Всесоюзный комитет по радиофикации и радиовещанию при СНК СССР).
- 15 October: first TV film with sound
- 15 December: Moscow TV center reinstated regular TV broadcasting after World War II
- 4 November: Moscow TV center adopted a new 625 lines standard
Because of the Soviet Union's size, a few problems had to be overcome. The first was geography: the European area of the Soviet Union was typical of Eastern Europe. Then there were the mountains such as the Urals. There were also the taiga and steppes of the east and the north. Another problem was time. The Soviet Union encompassed 11 different time zones, and thus what would be shown at 18:00 in Moscow would be different from 18:00 in Frunze, Kirghiz SSR (now Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan). The population too was unevenly spread out - there were more people in the European areas of the country than there would be in the eastern, Asian areas of the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviet Union also relayed their programming to other Warsaw Pact states.
As a result, the Soviet television system, while similar to the Soviet radio system, was a combination of ingenuity to overcome the problems mentioned in the prior section as well as transmitting programming to the Communist world.
Soviet television standard
The Soviet broadcast television standard used System D (OIRT VHF band with the "R" channels ranging from R1 to R12) and System K (pan-European/African UHF band), with SECAM as the color system standard. The resulting system is commonly referred to as "SECAM D/K".
Soviet television channels
Generally there were five channels (called "programmes" in the typical European fashion then). The first channel (1st Programme) was the main channel. It was also the most adaptable for the republics to utilize, having windows for broadcasting regional programming. (see #Regional television services below). Other channels were the All Union Programme (the second channel), the Moscow Programme (the third channel aimed mostly at Moscow), the Fourth Programme (the fourth channel), and the Fifth programe (the only channel broadcast from Leningrad). Not all channels were available everywhere in the Soviet Union. Many regions only had access to the First Programme and the All Union Programme until perestroika and the full establishment of the new Gorizont satellite network, which had enough transponders for all five channels to be carried to the entire Soviet Union for the first time. This move increased the variation of TV programmes offered; the newly available channels offered urban news and entertainment (Channel 3); culture, documentaries and programs for the Inteligentsia (Channel 4) and information and entertainment from the point of view of an another city (Channel 5).
Regional television services
In addition to the national television channels, each SSR and ASSR had its own state radio and television company or state broadcasting committees, although other regions were allowed regional state radio and television companies/state broadcasting committees. Taking the Chechen-Ingush ASSR as an example, like other areas of the Soviet Union the four national television channels would be broadcast by either a Television and Radio Company of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic or by a State Committee on Radio and Television Broadcasting.
However, there would be a difference in that in the First Programme, the Company/Committee was allowed to broadcast regional programming alongside the official First Programme schedule. Depending on the political status of an administrative division, the Company/Committee would either broadcast the regional programming in either Russian or the local language. In the Chechen-Ingush ASSR's case, this would mean that the regional programmes would either be in Russian, Chechen, or Ingush. The Company/Committee would also broadcast additional channels for their coverage area only.
Soviet satellite services
Alongside Canada's Anik satellite system and the U.S.'s satellite system, the Soviet Union could boast having the largest domestic satellite system in the world. Part of the ingenuity lies in the programming itself. The Soviet Union was a master in time-shifting programmes so that everyone in the Soviet Union could enjoy television programming. This involved several solutions to the Soviet Union's geography and time zone problems:
- Schedule. The national television channels were only on the air for part of the day. This would make it easy for transmitting the channels throughout the Union. For instance, the Fourth Programme aired from 1300-1740 GMT. This would make it easy for the Fourth Programme to be aired by satellite.
- Time-shifting. This is the heart of the programming aspect of the Soviet television system. By time-shifting programmes, this allowed the Soviet Union and countries that relayed Soviet television (such as Warsaw Pact states). There were two types of Soviet time-shifting, one based on a similar radio programme, and "Double" programs, which was composite time-shifting for the different time zones. Only the First Programme was time-shifted based on the pattern of a similar radio programme (in the First Programme's case the pattern was based on the All-Union First Programme from Soviet radio (TV Orbita-1 (UTC +11, +12, and +13 time zones), TV Orbita-2 (UTC +9 and +10 time zones), TV Orbita-3 (UTC +7 and +8 time zones), TV Orbita-4 (UTC +5 and +6 time zones), and the First Programme (UTC +2, +3, and +4 time zones)). All other national television channels (the All-Union, Moscow, and Fourth Programmes) used the "Double program" composite time-shifting format.
The Soviet domestic satellite system was also known as Orbita - in 1990 there were 90 Orbita satellites, supplying programming to 900 main transmitters and over 4,000 relay stations. The most famous Soviet satellites were the Molniya (or "Lightning") satellites; other satellite groups were christened the Gorizont ("Horizon"), Ekran ("Screen"), and Statsionar ("Stationary") satellites. With the right equipment, people outside the Soviet Union who used TVRO satellite television could receive Soviet television programming.
Soviet TV programming was highly diverse and somewhat similar to that of American PBS. It included news programs, various educational programs, documentaries, occasional movies, and children's programs. Major sports events such as soccer and ice hockey matches were often broadcast live. Programming was almost entirely either domestic or made in Warsaw Pact countries. Some TV miniseries were locally produced for TV, but rarely exceeded 5-10 episodes in length. A notable exception is Seventeen Moments of Spring—a twelve-episode series—which quickly became a cult film, about Stierlitz, a Soviet superspy in Nazi Germany, who inspired many jokes (see Russian humour).
Like all other forms of public media in the Soviet Union, Soviet TV was remarkable for having high levels of self-censorship. In addition to obvious state-mandated restrictions such as prohibition of any form of criticism of Soviet government, the list of taboo topics included all aspects of sex, with an exception of kissing, holding hands, and hugging, public nudity, graphic portrayal of violence, and coarse language. (Similar to many Western TV nations, such as the U.S., which maintained a total ban on the portrayal of couples in the same bed as well as having strict morality laws for all public media which only broke down after the 1960s Cultural Revolution) The subject of drug abuse was generally avoided, as in America where portrayal of drug use was not shown publicly on Television until The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955. Religion was either portrayed critically or avoided.
The face of Soviet television began to change rapidly in the late 1980s. Many Western programmes, mostly from the United Kingdom and Latin America, were imported and became very popular among Soviet citizens. Talk shows and game shows were introduced, often copied from their western counterparts (for example, one of the earliest Soviet game shows, The Field of Miracles, was copied from American Wheel of Fortune). Free speech regulations were gradually eased.
Until the late 1980s, Soviet TV programming did not carry any advertisements. Even then, they were rare, because few companies could produce ads about themselves.
The Soviet Union's television news was provided almost entirely by the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union, commonly known as TASS. TASS still exists today, transformed into the Information Telegraph Agency of Russia (ITAR-TASS). It occupies a Leonid Brezhnev-era building in Moscow, characterized by a sculpture of the globe above the main entrance. Much like its counterparts in cinema and the press, it has suffered since the collapse of Communism.
- 1990 edition of the WRTH (World Radio and Television Handbook)
- Central Television USSR at the Internet Movie Database
- CCCP TV: the Soviet TV portal
- (English) Library of Congress—The U.S. Naval Academy Collection of Soviet & Russian TV
- (Russian) Russian Museum of Radio and TV website
- The U.S. Naval Academy Collection of Soviet & Russian TV
- Nu Pogodi, the Soviet equivalent of Road Runner/Coyote, or Tom and Jerry.