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Russian channels sideline debates

Programs pushed out of primetime

Russia’s pubcasters are risking the Kremlin’s wrath by scheduling obligatory televised election campaign debates outside primetime.

Pubcasters the First Channel, Rossiya and government-controlled Moscow channel TV Tsentr plan to screen party political debates ahead of the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections in early morning or latenight slots despite electoral laws dictating they must air in primetime.

Channel chiefs argue the public’s appetite for political debate has shrunk and observers concur: Increasing centralization of power under President Vladimir Putin combined with his personal popularity ratings of around 70% have stoked widespread apathy.

The debates, which under Russian law are free of charge for parties contesting the election, are due to begin Monday, the first day of electioneering.

Registered parties are guaranteed free airtime when “television and radio broadcasters attract the largest audiences.” The Central Election Commission defines that as 7-9 a.m. and 7-11 p.m.

Plans by the First Channel — the country’s most-watched station — to screen debates between 11 a.m. and noon, because audience share for popular daytime shows often reached 25% and therefore should be considered primetime, got short shrift from the commission, business daily Kommersant reported Tuesday.

The channel rescheduled the debates between 7:05 and 7:55 a.m.

Rossiya, the second most-watched channel, plans to air the debates between 10:50 and 11:20 p.m. and had not received official reprimands for breaching the definition of primetime, a spokeswoman for parent company VGTRK (All State Television and Radio Company) said.

Moscow’s TV Tsentr plans to air political broadcasts mornings 8:30-9 and debates afternoons 5:40-6:10 p.m.

The decisions, although commercially driven, reflect wide consensus that Putin’s United Russia party will win most of the 450 seats in parliament, the State Duma. The party has declined to participate in the televised debates. Eleven parties will contest the elections.

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