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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

TV industry silence abandons Ukraine

By Ed Waller 25-02-2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week has brought war back to Europe for the first time in decades. What will it mean for the international TV industry?

The changing tone of the emails I receive from my contacts in the Ukrainian TV production industry reflect starkly what is happening in the country right now.

Messages from earlier this week, before the invasion, were angry that, despite much talk of sanctions against Russia it seemed the international business community was pulling away from Ukraine rather than its aggressive eastern neighbour.

“What gets me the most right now is that there’s all this talk about sanctions against Russia, but in reality embassies and businesses are withdrawing from Ukraine. Airlines are cancelling flights, insurance companies are not covering risks… Everyone is just throwing Ukraine under the bus economically. It feels like the sanctions are against Ukraine, not Russia,” wrote one from Kyiv.

Another contact spoke optimistically, naively as it turned out, of somehow maintaining normality: “We’re safe, at least for now, almost nothing changed in daily life. Kyiv looks the same as you know it, no tanks or military forces in any of our cities – except for the occupied territories. But let’s not forget we’re having war with Russia in eastern Ukraine for eight years already and people are dying there all the time.”

That was Tuesday. By Wednesday night the tanks were rolling across the border; Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law early on Thursday and the rest is history – or rather, news. From my contacts in Kyiv, there was silence.

Then today, I received this from a noted Ukrainian TV executive, a familiar face on the industry conference circuit and a Mipcom regular: “It’s a bit difficult to respond as we are in a bomb shelter. Reception is bad and battery juice is precious. Staying in a shelter. Watching Putin bomb Kyiv.”

It’s unbelievable this is happening in Europe in 2022. And today, yet more Russian airstrikes are raining bombs down on Kyiv, a city where TV industry execs gathered for Kyiv Media Week just four months ago.

Obviously, the repercussions of the Russian invasion will be long, painful and wide-ranging across the whole of society and business. But in our little corner, the international TV industry corner, the consequences will be huge.

The conflict comes just as the Ukrainian TV industry was forging more international links, with increased programmes sales and new incentives to attract international productions to shoot in the country.

This was the fruit of a deliberate strategy to make its media industry – and society as a whole – less reliant on Russia, following the deterioration of relations after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Only a few weeks ago, C21 was reporting optimistically on Ukraine’s first international coproductions and how the country was seeking partners in Europe and further afield, finding new stories to tell by drawing on its own culture and history.

“Ukrainian companies are entering the coproduction market in force, and not just with partners in the CEE or CIS regions, particularly now their biggest neighbour and former copro partner Russia is off-limits, but further afield in more lucrative markets such as France, Germany, the UK and Canada,” according to an article in C21’s Mipcom issue.

That progress has been put on hold, courtesy of President Putin, as those producers now literally cower in bomb shelters, fearing for their lives.

Of course, the international industry will accommodate the changes; coproductions will be put on hiatus and efforts will focus elsewhere, and shoots planned for Ukraine will relocate to countries untouched by war. There’s already talk of an expected boom for locations like Canada as US producers rethink shooting in Ukraine.

More helpful responses include the denial of Russian TV channels, which have long been accused of carrying Kremlin propaganda, which are being taken off the air across Europe, as C21 reports today.

But another trend in recent years was the growth of so-called ‘Moscow noir’ programming. Again, it wasn’t long ago that dark Russian drama of this kind was top of the pops on streamers like Netflix, and export agency Roskino was gleefully talking up its sales figures and the rising number of Russian coproductions with international partners.

As well as Russian companies getting more headlines and a bigger presence at industry events like Mipcom, non-Russian distributors began picking up Russian content to cater to the burgeoning demand.

How will that change now that Russia has brought war back to Europe? It is difficult to see how demand for dark Russian drama will stay buoyant in this environment, with real-life Russian warplanes and attack helicopters all over the internet and on TV news.

Furthermore, Netflix – after the success it had with 2019 hit To The Lake – has led the change in commissioning original Russian dramas for its service. Its first Russian original was announced last May, titled Anna K and based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina.

Then came another in November, described as a “psychological drama” starring Alexander Petrov (Ice 1-2, Method), and another came a month after that, this time focusing on a young actor and his volunteer work at a charity that supports people with disabilities.

Aside from the logistical questions of whether these productions can be completed due to sanctions imposed on Russian banks, not to mention whether viewers will want to watch them in this climate, another issue is looming on the horizon. Will Western corporations, like Netflix, take a stance against working with Russian companies in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion?

It’s a big question and one that will get louder as the fall-out from the invasion continues and yet more blood-soaked faces of Ukrainians appear in Western news coverage.

But from Netflix as well as several other companies working with Russia, C21 has received a series of ‘no comment’ responses. Which is ironic since the last email I received from the Ukrainian TV executive cowering in that bomb shelter was: “Everyone can help by not remaining silent.”

today's correspondent

Ed Waller Editorial director C21 Media

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.