President Putin's idea takes to air

MOSCOW — Russia’s children have a televised gift — courtesy of President Vladimir Putin.

Government-run kids channel Bibigon, named after the Lilliputian character that falls to earth from the Moon in a story by Soviet writer Kornei Chukovsky, launched across Russia’s vast territory in early September, just as the nation’s children returned to school after the long summer vacation.

Russia’s first dedicated children’s channel was launched less than a year after Putin first mooted the idea.

The channel, run by state umbrella body All Russian State TV and Radio Co., cost $10 million to set up and has an annual budget of around $40 million. It airs a mix of cartoons, educational programming, sports, reality shows and films aimed at 4- to 17-year-olds, five hours a day on the state-run Rossiya, Kultura and Sports channels.

A 5 a.m.-to-midnight schedule, with 65% Russian programming and 35% foreign (much of it from long-time programming partner, the BBC), is available daily to satcaster NTV-Plus’ 560,000 subscribers.

Established at the “personal demand” of Putin, according to the Kremlin’s mouthpiece government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the channel is designed to meet growing concerns among parents for a safe TV environment for their children.

Putin — who has championed the family with initiatives aimed at stemming the country’s declining population through encouraging mothers to have more children — took part in the creation of the channel, commenting on details in a number of discussions, says webhead Oleg Dobrodeyev.

The national launch of the channel, accompanied by ubiquitous and colorful outdoor advertisements and placards with the channel’s logo and some of its cartoon characters, coincided with the early stages of campaigning for crucial parliamentary elections due Dec. 2.

City streets festooned with bus-shelter ads for Bibigon and billboards for the Kremlin-backed party United Russia declaring “Putin’s Plan –Russia’s Victory” have led some wags here to suggest the children’s channel is subliminal political advertising.

The web’s backers insist it is long overdue in a country where there is little programming for children — apart from a famous, five-minute evening puppet show for children, “Good Night Little Ones,” that dates back more than 40 years and is all-but inseparable from childhood itself for many Russians.

“We never had a children’s channel in Soviet times, although there were many educational programs,” a network spokeswoman says. “Now, thanks to the development of television as a business in Russia, we are able to establish such a channel.”

With economic growth that in recent years has nudged 8% a year and a TV advertising market worth an estimated $3 billion annually, the business in Russia has never had it so good.

The commercial value of children’s programming was underlined recently when Procter & Gamble signed a deal to use the images of Khrusha and Stepashka — the much-loved pig and hare puppet characters from “Good Night Little Ones” — in diaper commercials.

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