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Russia rushes ratings race

Mipcom 2011

It’s the annual autumnal clash of titans in Russia. As fall colors appear, the TV channels go head-to-head in a ratings war.

The weapons of choice: brand-new romantic comedies, riveting dramas and captivating cop series hitting the air as broadcasters battle for those precious percentage points of aud share that bring rich rewards in advertising coin. In a market worth more than $4 billion a year in television advertising alone — and where airtime rates have bounced back after sharp discounts kept the sales business afloat during the recession of 2008-10 — homegrown series or local adaptations of foreign formats are the motors that drive profitability and create shareholder value.

Fall TV in Russia (the centerpiece of a series of special Mipcom Focus on Russia conferences this year) is dominated by soaps, sitcoms, romantic comedies and special-event dramas across the six major national broadcasters — Channel One, Rossiya, CTC, NTV, TNT and Ren-TV — and many of the smaller local city and regional stations. Getting the formula or format right is a painstaking and competitive task.

Russian World Studios CEO Yuri Sapronov knows just how tough it is. His company is one of the biggest independent producers of television series. Aug. 29 was D-Day for the fall schedules this year, and RWS’ brand-new “In the Wrong Skin” — an adaptation of a Korean format about a couple that finds they can swap bodies — went out at peak time (9:30 p.m.) on Russia’s most-watched station, federal pubcaster Channel One. Initial figures showed it scored a shade under 24 audience share across Russia for its launch.

The 48-minute show was followed at 10:30 p.m. — in a new slot dubbed second primetime here — by Channel One’s own new cops drama “Tovarishi” (Comrades).

CTC — Russia’s leading commercial network and one of the world’s most profitable channels, producing around 1,000 hours of series a year — fired its barrage at 7:30 p.m. with “Physics or Chemistry,” an adaptation of Spanish Antena 3’s format about the relationships (romantic and otherwise) between high school students and teachers.

Sapronov says the sheer competition in the Russian television production market means it’s a constant struggle to find fresh ideas, improve project development and battle wage inflation.

Actors’ fees have risen to 30% above pre-recession levels, despite efforts by leading production companies to strike a deal with the thesps union on setting annual limits to pay increases.

“In America, typically you may have 10 shows in development, one of which makes it to a full series,” Sapronov says. “In Russia, out of 10 in development, nine will be aired.”

It’s a problem Vyacheslav Murugov, chief content officer of CTC Media and head of CTC Network, agrees is a key challenge to a fast-changing industry.

With growing audience disenchantment with Hollywood movies and increasing demand for Russian content, CTC recently amalgamated its two production units Soho Media and Costafilm into one company, Story First Prods.

By combining the staff of around 70 and adding a creative team of seven, CTC hopes to turn out more original Russian content and better adaptations of foreign formats.

“CTC occupies a niche in terms of content,” says Murugov. “Our audience is younger, and historically we have used sketch shows, sitcoms, drama-comedies and some family shows too.”

Describing CTC’s main competitor TNT as “like Pepsi to Coke,” Murugov says unlike most other national channels, which carry news and documentaries, CTC is free to create pure entertainment content.

It is an approach that earns the channel margins of up to 50% and foreign sales, such as the $38 million of programming it sold last year to Ukrainian channels.

Story First will ramp up domestically produced content over the next two or three years, beefing up the CTC library, before targeting Eastern and eventually Western Europe markets for the original Russian formats the channel plans to develop.

Vasily Balashov, Story First’s 35-year-old director of production — poached by Murugov from Disney Russia in June — is bursting with ideas on how to realize that strategy.

“We are setting up a creative team that will generate ideas to pitch to channels, rather than wait for channels to come to us,” Balashov says. “We plan to fully develop our own content with creative control from start to finish.”

Sony Pictures Television Prods. Russia veep and general director Maria Mamedova says Russian-made drama, sitcoms and romantic comedies are an increasingly valuable property.

Her company has produced some of the top hits of recent years, including shows such as “Vorononi” (CTC’s local adaptation of “Everybody Loves Raymond”) “Ugly Betty” and Russian period romantic drama “Bednaya Nastaya” (Poor Anastasia).

“Local production is very important,” Mamedova says. “Most of the primetime slots on the big channels are Russian series.”

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