TV over family
How television constructs consciousness and awareness of people in Moldova
© Vladimir Soloviev
Nikolay Pakholnitsky is a journalist for the Moldovan independent online publication NewsMaker and a media expert. For more than eight years, his research and review have been focused on the Moldovan media market. In his recent study for the OSTWEST MONITORING project, he described the televis3on addiction typical of the Moldovan society, where television is often trusted more than family members.
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Of all the arts the most important for the majority of Moldovans is the cinema. People trust television more than their own family members. This has a lot of implications, including the politicians’ striving towards control over TV channels. Those channels that broadcast Russian content are valued most.
The channels of influence
In the age of smartphones and the Internet, the majority of Moldovans still watch TV to keep up with the latest news and for entertainment. This situation is reflected in sociological survey reports every single year. For example, according to a credible last year's survey Public Opinion Barometer, television is the main source of information for 51% of the country's population. The Internet ranked second with 23.1%.
The latest Public Opinion Barometer in November 2022 showed the still leading role of TV, although the Internet has improved its position significantly. When the respondents were given the opportunity to choose the two most important for them sources of information, 66.8% of them preferred TV and 64.7% showed their preference for the Internet.
These sociological surveys have found another surprising fact: TV is number one on the list of the “most trusted sources of information” (with 18.1%). Family scored 15.7% and ranked second. According to a survey conducted by the IDIS Viitorul Institute and the Center of sociological investigations and marketing CBS-AXA in November 2022, only 21.5% of the Moldovan population use alternative sources of information instead of television.
At the same time, according to the Public Opinion Barometer, 31.8% of respondents trust the Internet and only 24.5% show trust towards TV, while 21.6% of the population does not trust any of the information sources.
There are currently 70 registered TV channels in Moldova, including 40 channels with national wide coverage (through air broadcasting or cable services). Besides the local channels that provide exclusively original content, several channels retranslating Russian TV content have always been active in Moldova. Among the most popular Russian TV channels authorized for retransmission are Channel One Russia, Russia-1, NTV, TNT, STS, Domashny, or REN TV.
In addition, there are only two local TV channels in Moldova whose coverage includes some content of neighboring Romania: Pro TV Chisinau and the TVR-Moldova channel that retransmits the programming of the Romanian public television.
The channels that broadcast Russian content, however, have always been at the top of popularity rankings among Moldovan viewers. According to the latest open data from the Moldovan TV audience meter AGB, the most popular TV channels in Moldova for August 2020 were RTR-Moldova, NTV-Moldova and Primul in Moldova. These are exactly the TV channels that retransmit, respectively, the content of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, NTV, and Channel One.
Since August 2020, AGB has not published any ratings of TV channels in the public domain, but the TV audience measurement company still provides data on the top most popular programs broadcasted on each of the Moldovan TV channels. Among the highest-ranked TV shows, one can find the Russian version of Who wants to be a millionaire?, the talk shows Let them talk, Judgment hour, Battle of the psychics, and Russian TV series.
The battle for airtime
The facts and numbers cited above imply the invaluable importance of television for Moldovan politicians and for the local political landscape, which, in its turn, affects the geopolitical preferences of the Moldovans with regard to the East-West bifurcation.
Moldovan politicians have always looked to establish control over the TV market with the idea of using television as a political tool. The most impressive example is the infamous Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc: from 2010 to 2019, he, in fact, ruled the country without holding any official positions in the state government. For a certain time period, as the leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova, he was the biggest media tycoon in the republic.
Directly or through people close to him, Plahotniuc was the owner of the TV channels: Prime (retranslates the content of the Russian Channel One), Canal 2, Canal 3, Publika TV, CTC-Mega (retranslates the content of the Russian channel STS) and Familia Domashniy (retranslates the content of the Russian channel Domashniy). Plahotniuc also owned several radio stations and a sales house that sold commercials for his media assets.
Prime was the jewel in the media crown of the oligarch. The TV channel retranslated the programs of the Russian Channel One and mainly owing to this, it was the most popular TV channel in Moldova, far ahead of the other TV channels in the rankings. The TV channel with national wide coverage was accessible from pretty much every Moldovan location, while major cable operators granted it with the first number button in their lists of TV channels.
When in 2014, Igor Dodon, with the help of Moscow, became the main pro-Russian politician in Moldova, he immediately set out to aggregate his own media assets. Dodon started his solo political career as a parliament member; eventually, he became the head of the Party of Socialists and in 2016, ended up president of the country.
With the support of Russia, he secured control — again through affiliates — over the TV channels NTV-Moldova, THT Exclusiv TV, Accent TV (retranslating, in particular, the content of the Russian channel Pyatnitsa), then Primul in Moldova. The Russian Channel One granted retransmission consent to Primul in Moldova, which authorized the channel to carry its programming, and took this right away from the Prime channel owned by Vladimir Plahotniuc. In addition, the Moldovan sister editions of the two major Russian newspapers — Komsomolskaya pravda in Moldova and Arguments and facts in Moldova — are also pro-Dodon publications.
As an ex-president, in the spring of 2022, Dodon faced a criminal charge and the collection of TV channels that were in his possession started to migrate towards Ilan Shor, a new favorite of Russia.
A fugitive businessman and parliament member, Ilan Shor is another Moldovan politician who advocates for dialogue with Russia and receives support from Moscow. Earlier this year, he organized indefinite protests in Chisinau against the pro-Western president Maia Sandu, her ruling Party of Action and Solidarity, and the government appointed by this party. The ongoing protests have become particularly active since mid-September.
The acceleration of street activities inspired by Shor coincided with the Primul in Moldova and Accent TV channels passing into his possession. He had previously gained control over Orhei TV, as well as the TV6 channel that recently obtained retransmission consent to partially carry the programming of the Russian NTV channel.
The TV-focused dialogue
In addition to retranslations of Russian entertainment TV shows, these channels produce quite a lot of original content: predominantly news, political shows, and talk shows. Locally produced information and analytical content of TV channels is usually designed for the tasks of the one who is currently in control. If the owner is in government, the audience is fed the narratives about the perfect operation of the government and the opposition’s offensive wrongdoing. If the current owner is in opposition himself (which is the case with Ilan Shor), his loyal media resources are heavily critical of the authorities who are, therefore, presented as incapable of performing their functions.
Besides the above-mentioned media resources, there are two public TV channels in the country: Moldova 1 and Moldova 2, as well as several TV channels funded by Western grants or sponsored by local businessmen. It turns out difficult for them, though, to compete with the channels driven by Russian content.
For about a decade, in their discussions of the TV market, Moldovan media experts have consistently addressed a range of persistent problems, such as propaganda, domestic and imported alike; monopoly of the market held by politicians; and disloyal competition on the part of the Moldovan TV channels carrying the content of their Russian counterparts.
The authorities in Moldova are trying to tackle all these problems at once, without considerable success. A few years ago, in the attempt to outlaw the monopolistic media market, the ownership of more than two TV channels by the same person was legally banned. As a result, politicians started moving their media assets into different baskets, while keeping control over those resources and their editorial policy. As an example, four TV channels in Moldova today are, in fact, controlled by Ilan Shor, but none of them is registered in his name and the ownership is executed via his proxies.
Russian propaganda is a whole special battlefield of operation. In 2017, a legal ban was introduced in Moldova to block Russian news, as well as information-analytical and military content: entertainment shows only were allowed for retransmission. In 2020, with the radical changes in political trends, the ban was lifted.
In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Moldovan authorities restored the ban on Russian news: the decision was first conceived by the emergency response commission followed by the corresponding legislative changes. This time, the ban not only affected Russian news and information-analytical content, but also Russian and Soviet military films. The ban did not come into force in the Gagauz autonomy, the southern region of Moldova, with its own parliament, local government, and head of the region, where pro-Russian sentiment has been strong throughout. The Gagauz cable operators refused to comply with the regulations introduced by the central authorities; as a result, Russian TV channels produced for the Russian market are accessible in Gagauzia.
The legal ban in Moldova was not targeted against Russian news directly or exclusively. It was largely focused on foreign news and information-analytical content produced outside the EU, USA, Canada, and in the states that failed to ratify the European Convention on Transfrontier Television, Russia being one of these countries.
When the Russian-Ukrainian war was already in full operation, the Information and Security Service of the Republic of Moldova (SIS) was entitled to block websites spreading fake news. One of the first websites blocked by the SIS was Sputnik Moldova, the Moldovan branch of the Russian international information agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). Although the website is inaccessible from Moldova, the editorial board of the portal is still active and their work continues.
Questions and questionnaires
The restrictive measures and bans have not proven to be particularly effective so far. The political parties campaigning for special relations with Moscow are still popular in today’s Moldova. Three of them have representation in parliament and would most likely make it there again in the event of early elections: these are the Party of Socialists, the Party of Communists, and the party of Ilan Shor called “Shor.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rating is still fairly high in the republic. According to the local socio-political barometer 35% of Moldovan citizens trust Putin (with 59% showing distrust). For comparison, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of neighboring Ukraine, is trusted by 31% and distrusted by 61% of the population.
As follows from another poll whose results were presented by the public organization Watchdog in May, 23% of Moldovan citizens think that Russia, in its war against Ukraine, is protecting the “LDNR” attacked by Kyiv, while 16% believe that Moscow is performing the “denazification” of Ukraine. At the same time, 25% of the respondents hold Vladimir Putin personally responsible for the war, although 19% blamed the United States and 13% said it was the responsibility of the Ukrainian authorities. Another 15% blamed Russia for unleashing the war.
According to the latest Public Opinion Barometer poll, 38.3% of the Moldovan population believe that the war in Ukraine is an unprovoked aggression, 17.1% believe that Russia’s objective is protection of the “LDNR,” and 15.1% think that Russia intends to liberate Ukraine from Nazism. At the same time, 36.2% believe that it is Ukraine that is right in this conflict, 21.9% are certain that the truth is on the Russian side, and another 23.2% of respondents think that neither side is right here.
There is one more important issue with Russian content distributors who are being accused of disloyal competition. It is much more expensive to create original content in Moldova than to buy similar content from Russia for its retransmission. It is noteworthy that both the channels that use local content only and the channels that buy content from Russia are competing for the same advertisers.
As a result, this year, Moldova legally restricted the market share of purchased media content. According to this restriction, at least half of the “imported” content must come from the EU or the states that have ratified the European Convention on Transfrontier Television. Russia, therefore, is excluded from this list.
The broadcasting of Russian content, though, will still be performed by the same channels that are affiliated with pro-Russian politicians, which means that their influence on the audience will still be effective. It doesn’t really make much difference that the notoriously brutal talk shows of Vladimir Solovyov, Dmitry Kiselev, and the like are banned in Moldova, as well as Russian news infused with pro-Moscow sentiments and opinions. Russian-produced entertainment content keeps the audience under the guidance of the channel that remains in the proper hands, where local news shows are often tailored according to the Russian models. The scheme works.
At least, for now.