Live, From Moscow! Columbia U. Tunes In to Soviet TV Broadcasts
By Dody Tsiantar | November 22, 1984
NEW YORK – Moscow has come to the Hudson. On a recent afternoon, Mark Greenfield, a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Russian institute, sat before a control panel and a television monitor. He pushed a few buttons, turned a few dials, and precisely at 5 o’clock, the Kremlin towers appeared on the screen.
Superimposed on one of the towers, a clock ticked. “Vremiya,” the main news show on Programma One, the key Soviet network that reaches from one end of the country to the other, was about to begin. With a backdrop of Moscow behind him, a man who looked a bit like Dan Rather relayed the day’s events.
Tuning in to direct television broadcasts from the Soviet Union has become a ritual for a group of students and professors at Columbia’s Harriman Institute for Soviet Studies.
With the aid of an intricate electronic system, the group has begun tapping up to 15 hours of programming per day.
There is a diversity of material, from a speech by Chernenko to the million-ruble movie,” said Jonathan Sanders, the assistant director of the Harriman Institute. Soviet television, he says, emphasizes control and is more didactic than American television.
For example, he says he learned recently to make a “great borscht” from watching a cooking program. Like the Galloping Gourmet?
it was more like the Babbling Babushka,” he said.
Soviet programming does not carry advertisements, as we know them. But as Sanders frequently notes, “Soviet television is a noncommercial network with a big commercial for a firm called USSR Incorporated.”
Sanders emphasized that students deepen their understanding of Russian culture by watching the broadcasts regularly. ‘There is so much more to the Soviet Union than who is standing next to whom on the Kremlin Wall,”
he said. ‘This is what speaks to the ‘Archie Bunkers’ of the Soviet Union.”
The first segment on ‘Vremiya” this particular evening showed workers on an oil field, a tribute to their productivity. it’s all upbeat and pocitive, sort of an ‘industry on parade’ kind of news,” said Sander’s, who translated. Another segment explained how patients were taught to relax before major eye surgery. A woman, wearing an eye patch, steadily walked away from the operating table without assistance.
News from the United States was a prom inent portion of the program. A woman seated in front of a map of the U.S. delivered a report on Dennis Banks. the Indian activist in South Dakota. ‘He’s the Soviet answer to Sakharov,” joked Sanders.
‘Vremiya” contains less animation than American news programs. Set pieces are preferred to live settings, and newscasters often read from scripts instead of TelePrompTer.
Sports followed. The key feature: an update on the world championship chess match. A man in a gray suit stood next to an enlarged chess board and carefully described the progress of the match without actually moving any of the pieces No fancy graphics here.
Ditto fur the weather report. A woman simply read the temperatures and weather fore-casts in various cities.
After the news came an exercise program. Not Richard Simmons here, just a serious Soviet couple guiding fellow Muscovites in their daily workouts.
Ensuing programs were then announced: a documentary on animal feed and “Othello,” the opera. Quite a combination.
On a more regular basis, one is apt to see “wonderkil” children’s programs that use puppets and marionettes, says Sanders, who says he is becoming an addict of the broadcasts. Other faithful viewers of the Soviet tube have seen a “terrific” science fiction film, a field hockey match between Poland and Cuba, a smartly tailored series about Sherlock Holmes, a film based on a contemporary Soviet short story, poetry readings and a few “boy meets girl” romances.
Bringing Soviet television to the Banks of the Hudson involved a rather complicated process and cost about $35,000. An 11 foot custom made satellite antenna dish atop Columbia’s 15-story International Affairs Building picks up signals from one of four ‘Molniya” satellites. American satellites differ in that they remain stationary above the earth’s equator.
Motorized controls drive the antenna so that it can track a Molniya.
At the time Molniya’s signals are picked up in Manhattan, the satellite is actually 25,000 feet
(Arthur C. Clarke comments on this error: “Wow! Some sonic boom!”}
over Canada. It is midnight in Moscow, but eight in the morning in Siberia, where the signals are received.
The Soviet video picture is clearer and sharper than ours and the color is more brilliant. The reason is that the Soviets use a Modified version of the more advanced French video system. SECAM, which is made up of 625 horizontal lines as opposed to the 525 lines used on our system. This allows for better detail and improved color.
“They would kill for this picture in Biloxi,” says Ken Schaffer, the engineer who made reception possible at Colurmbia. He is also known as the inventor of the cordless guitar and cordless microphone.
Before Columbia, many universities rejected his idea. “They were all chicken,” he says. But another university recently asked han to let him set up a similar apparatus to monitor television in the southern hemisphere. He will not say which one, however.
This self-proclaimed member of the Woodstock generation is intrigued with more than the technical aspects of his project.
“When you start getting into their ‘gestalt,’ you realize they have the samee aspirations that you have. By exposure, you de-alienize what is strange, you demystify it. If you can reciprocate this around the world, it would be a much nicer place.”