Outside politics and business, he is one of the most influential men in Russia.
Ernst’s career began at the end of the Soviet era in 1988 on state TV news show “Vzglyad” (Glance), and within seven years he was general producer of pubcaster ORT; in 1999 he was appointed CEO of that partially privatized channel (the state owns 51%), which was rebranded Channel One in 2002.
Under Ernst, Channel One has become a leader in ratings and a key producer of television drama and movies. It has backed such box office hits as “Night Watch,” the breakout film for director Timur Bekmambetov, and “Irony of Fate — Continuation,” the 2007 update of a classic and greatly loved Soviet-era film that went on to become the highest-grossing Russian film ever, taking more than $53 million.
One the net’s biggest hits was the Russian-hosted 2009 Eurovision Song Contest produced by a creative team headed by Ernst that drew an audience of 70% of Russia’s near 150 million people and a pan-European viewership of 122 million.
Ernst downplays his part in making Channel One Russia’s top station, attributing its success to the right ideas in the right time, with highly professional production and shows loaded with energy.
But he has a clear idea of where the industry is going and how best to stay on top — as he will explain at Mipcom in a keynote speech during the Russian Focus Day.
Over the coming five years, changes in viewer habits and the growth of new-media platforms will bring big changes, particularly to Russian television’s ability to open up international markets, he believes.
“Either we deal with high-concept products and convincing drama or with bilingual versions — projects initially shot in two languages, Russian and English. We are likely to give up a lot of TV formats we’ve gotten used to and create new television in the near future,” Ernst says.
It is important, he stresses, not to get carried away with the new technology.
“The new age will bring new types of platforms, with the Internet being just one of these. But the Internet does not produce expensive and quality content. It’s just a network — not even of teams, but of individuals. We don’t know what the new time will bring us, but we surely will be using it.”
One change he has already made is in the demographic the channel uses to measure its ratings, expanding it in September — the beginning of the new TV season — from All 18+ to All 14-59. The move could give channel’s ratings a boost of 15%-20% or more, he says.
Ernst dismisses criticism that Russian television news has become neutered in recent years, saying that it is an emotional subject.
As a national channel his station must take the interests of a “vast audience” into account.
“The criticism is generally produced by liberal mass media, which don’t sound too democratic — rather they sound a bit (like the) Bolsheviks, trying to force their point of view on the rest,” he maintains.
As for political interference, Ernst does not deny that as a public channel the Kremlin exerts pressure at times, via its 51% stake in the channel, but says that is not unique to Russia.
“Any national broadcaster in any country is able to (do that),” he says, adding that broadcasters “make use of channels to communicate either with the government or with the president — say the White House.”
He specifically notes the coverage of the brief war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 in South Ossetia.
“Many in Russia find it hard to think that major American TV channels decided to stick to the line they chose without special command,” he says. “And their coverage, to choose my words carefully, was quite far from what really was going on there.”
Ernst admits, “Yes, we communicate with the government and the presidential administration, we get interviews and press releases dealing with major events. We also often ask for help when trying to organize press conferences of top officials not too keen on interacting with mass media. I know how the BBC interacts with Downing Street; I know how French TV channels interact with the Elysee Palace. We’ve just discussed the White House, right? Any national broadcaster in any country directly deals with the authority, no matter what they tell you.”
Looking back on his two decades in Russian public broadcasting, he says he is proud to have played a role as “an artist, businessman, politician, manager, actor and just a man trying to make life better.
“My first program on TV was ‘Vzglyad,’ which contributed to the fall of communism in Russia. And I hope that Channel One Russia is trying to make the life of the Russians more interesting being kind of a common home for almost 150 million Russians.”
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