Alexander Akopov

TV producer sees an untapped market in Russia’s yearning for quality content — and U.S. series are a big part of his business model

Russia’s leading TV producer, Alexander Akopov, is leaning on U.S. TV shows and know-how to up the ante in the country’s burgeoning television market.

Akopov set up production shingle Amedia in 2002 with U.S. billionaire Len Blavatnik, and nine years later launched its own basic-cable channels, Amedia 1 and Amedia 2. Now Akopov is starting pay TV channel Amedia Premium, carrying programming from such U.S. networks as HBO, Starz, Showtime, CBS and Fox. His criteria when selecting shows is simple: “It is a collection of the best of the best on television,” he says.

Ninety percent of the content will be from U.S. premium channels, but there will also be select European series, such as Scandi skein “The Bridge” and Norway’s “Lilyhammer.” Shows also will be available to subscribers via streaming service Amediateka.ru.

The country’s population stands at nearly 150 million, and Akopov sees a thirst for high-quality U.S. product, much of which was previously available only from pirated sources.

“We wanted to create a big picture of what U.S. television is now. Modern television presents the avant-garde of filmmaking, and the best things on screen can be found on television,” he says.

Akopov believes Russian viewers will pay for excellence. “The audience is ready to accept that there is a kind of television that needs to be paid for, because it is better quality than free-to-air television,” he says. “It is targeted at a narrower audience, and offers stories that are more complex, characters that are not the usual good guys, and so on.”

Akopov was a topper at free-to-air broadcaster Rossiya before setting up the Amedia shingle. Since then, he’s focused on producing content for the free-to-air networks, including original series like period drama “Poor Anastasia,” which sold to 25 countries, as well as local versions of formats and international series like “Ugly Betty” and “Closed School” (a redo of Spanish supernatural thriller “El Internado”).

Although Amedia’s plan is to fill the new premium channel largely with acquired content, it is also developing a few Russian shows for it.

The Russian biz also produces 3,000 hours of TV content a year, and Akopov says that while audience demand exists for such fare, and financing is available, good scripts are in short supply. “In some cases, we would have American writers or story editors come over because we can’t find adequate specialists in Russia,” he says. “It is not as rich as it is in the U.S. in terms of how much we can spend per hour, but it is very close to European levels.”

Akopov adds that there is no shortage of characters and themes in a country that is changing rapidly.

“Our TV series answer a lot of questions that people feel need to be answered in a society like ours, which is going through fast social shifts, in people’s understanding of what they live for and who they are,” he says. “There is huge demand for stories that are based around contemporary life in Russia.”

Akopov is also chairman of the Assn. of Russian Film & TV Producers, and has led an industry campaign over the past three years to toughen the country’s antipiracy legislation.

The campaign faced strong opposition from telcos and the Internet lobby, but in June, lawmakers agreed to implement measures that can block access to websites that carry pirated content.

“We managed to completely change the public mood in the past three years,” he says.

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