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A bear market

By Ed Waller 02-10-2015

The Japanese deal for Ukrainian crime drama The Sniffer, reported here today, is certainly good news for the Eastern European country but there’s no denying that the ban on Russian content is having more of an impact than was initially expected.

Japan's version of The Sniffer will air next year

Japan’s version of The Sniffer will air next year

Russian drama might be politically undesirable in Ukraine but broadcasters there are nevertheless financially reliant on it and are struggling in the wake of its prohibition by the government this year.

That was certainly the feeling at Kiev Media Week last month, where the dependence of Ukrainian TV on Russian drama was laid bare by research from event organiser MRM. The study covered the 10 biggest national broadcasters: Inter, Ukraina, STB, ICTV, NTN, New Channel, TET, 1+1, 2+2 and K1.

Together, they aired 27,000 hours of drama last year – amounting to 31% of all Ukrainian broadcast airtime – and 66% of it hailed from the country’s northern neighbour. Russian-Ukrainian coproductions accounted for a further 6%, while the share of Ukrainian drama series was just 5%.

ICTV’s 2014 schedule, for instance, comprises about 25% Russian series and was said to be one of the channels most affected by the ban. Likewise, Ukraina, New Channel and NTN also rely heavily on Russian series.

That’s a lot of airtime to replace almost overnight and Ukrainian TV bigwigs are now calling on the government for financial support. They include Victor Mirsky, joint owner and general producer of Kiev studio Film.UA; Vladimir Borodiansky, director general of StarLightMedia and broadcaster STB; Grigoriy Shverk, deputy head of the Ukrainian National Council for TV & Radio Broadcasting; and Viktoriya Tsomaya, chief marketing officer at cable operator Volia.

“The question is how to fill the gap,” said Mirsky at Kiev Media Week. Citing budgets of between US$20,000 and US$30,000 per hour, he added: “Ukraine can’t afford to produce drama series on its own. But Ukraine can coproduce 1,000 hours a year with Russia only because of the shared language. We can’t do that with Poland.”

Developing local drama is obviously a key aim for Ukrainian producers and networks, with Film.UA’s crime series The Sniffer (8x60’) the best example of one that’s made an impact internationally. Produced for ICTV, the show has also aired on Russia’s Channel One, KTK in Kazakhstan and Channel 9 in Israel, with sales into Poland, Finland and various Asian and Latin American markets. It has also travelled as a scripted format, with a remake in development at TF1 in France. C21 also broke the news today that Japanese public broadcaster NHK has done a deal to adapt the drama for its own market.

A great start to Ukraine’s Mipcom profile but not all Ukrainian drama travels so well. According to Borodiansky, the country’s TV industry runs a deficit of around UAH3.5bn (US$160m) a year. “That is the amount of money we need to get from external sources,” he says, adding that Ukraine’s TV industry is actually worth less than this deficit: around UAH2.5bn.

And according to his calculations, the ban on Russian content cost Ukrainian networks between US$80m and US$100m overnight. It also since emerged that the ban on Russian series is now driving Ukrainians to simply redirect their satellite dishes to receive the Russian channels where the banned programmes air.

One of the issues that Ukrainian TV execs keep returning to is the need for the government to mitigate the consequences of the ban. There have been calls for a BBC-style licence fee for TV reception to generate extra revenue for channels, tax rebates for drama production, as well as switching off analogue signals so broadcasters don’t have the extra costs of transmitting in both analogue and digital.

One alternative being explored is product placement, and Oksana Stekhina, director of business development at Dentsu Aegis Network Ukraine, is pushing for this option during one Kiev session, saying: “Advertisers need to be accustomed to this method in small doses.”

And Borodiansky has said he’s ready to turn his free-to-air networks into pay channels when received via DTH from as early as January. Meanwhile, Boris Shefir, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Ukrainian prodco Studio Kvartal 95, revealed in Kiev that he is exploring the adaptation of Nordic drama The Bridge with a Polish copro partner. Dmitry Liu, founder of China International Film & Media, meanwhile, urged Ukrainians to start coproducing further east, since “the Chinese industry is developing very fast and is very interested in cooperation.”

The takeaway from Kiev was that Ukrainian channels will have to find an alternative to Russian content fast, alongside coproduction partners that can deliver not just volume but in the local language. Otherwise audiences there will have another reason to switch to channels from across the border, or even ditch linear TV and turn to online content, legal or otherwise. And deals like today’s one with NHK can only help raise the profile of Ukrainian drama so it is less reliant on Russia, which accounts for 80% of Ukrainian TV exports.

today's correspondent

Ed Waller Editorial director
Ed Waller PERSP 2

Ed Waller is a media journalist working out of London, England.

He is editorial director for C21 Media, which publishes the leading international TV trade website and print magazines Channel 21 International and C21 Kids. He also regularly contributes to UK national newspapers including The Guardian, The Independent and The Sunday Times.

Ed previously worked at trade magazines Televisual Magazine and Asia-Pacific Satellite.