Television in the u.s.s.r

WILLIAM S. HALSTEAD was supervisory engineer and consultant to the Nippon Television Network Corporation, Tokyo, in establishing the first commercial television service in the Far East. He also is the author of a proposed North Atlantic Relay Communications Plan which is now under consideration in North America and in Europe. President of Unitel, Inc., a global television enterprise, he was invited in 1959 to Moscow to present a paper at the International Electronics Conference, and while there observed the development of television in the Soviet Union.


ONE of the first things that a visitor to Moscow notices as he approaches the city along the highway from the airport is the familiar pattern of television antennas on the many apartment buildings in outlying sections of the capital. Near the center, where the old and new Moscow blend, one can see on the roofs of the smaller dwellings, some with log walls dating from the eighteenth century, a maze of upthrusting masts and crossbars such as has marked the advent of video broadcasting in most of the countries of the world.

Television has expanded rapidly in the Soviet Union. By the end of 1959, there was a total of 136 television stations in operation, and approximately four million receivers were in use during the latter part of 1959, in contrast to two and a half million at the beginning of the year. Each receiver is estimated to reach an average of seven persons, for the appeal of television is so great that on collective farms, in clubs, and in the recreation centers of industrial plants, viewing groups of one to two hundred are not uncommon.

These receivers cost slightly more than similar models in the United States, ranging between 2000 and 3000 rubles (about $200 to $300 in U.S. currency). With recent introduction of installment buying, based on payroll deductions over a period of months, it is expected that television receivers will find their way into the homes of most Soviet families.

Almost half of the stations now in operation have complete studio facilities and are designated as television centers. These originate their own programs or utilize kinescope recordings and films from Moscow and other sources, and reach large audiences in all of the principal cities of the Soviet Union. Television centers now function in distant sections of the U.S.S.R., such as Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, more remote from Moscow than is New York; in Central Siberian cities, such as Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Bratsk, and Irkutsk; and in the isolated southernmost Asiatic area of the Soviet Union, in Alma Ata, Tashkent, Stalinabad, and Ashkhabad, where the existence of many languages and ethnic groups complicates the problem of a national television service. There are television stations north of the Arctic Circle, at the Barents Sea port and military base of Murmansk; and throughout the densely populated European portion of the U.S.S.R., including the important industrial cities extending from the Baltic port of Leningrad to Baku on the Caspian Sea. These and other comparable cities have their own television studios and powerful transmitting equipment. Small communities and farm villages are reached in many areas by means of strategically located low-power transmitters, which relay the programs from the nearest center

The studios of the Moscow Television Center are housed in a large three-story brick building, located in a fenced-in compound at the base of two television towers which provide two separate transmissions, known as the first and second programs, each on its own channel. When I entered the studio building, one of my first impressions was the striking contrast between the tense, fast-paced atmosphere of most television studios in the United States and the relaxed, easygoing attitude of studio personnel at the Moscow Center. But there was the usual clutter of floor and ceiling lights, cameras, cables, dollies, scenery, and props that are an inherent part of television production facilities, whether in New York or Moscow. I was impressed by the informality and leisurely tempo that appear to characterize rehearsals, although directors were not hesitant in demanding numerous repetitions of scenes until they had achieved the desired effect.

On one of my visits, a children’s program was in rehearsal. Two cameras were trained on a group of boys and girls, under guidance of an attractive young woman who served as counselor in conducting nature studies. A third camera was used for close-ups of glass-topped cases of pressed leaves, butterflies, and other displays. The boys, members of the Young Pioneers, the Soviet equivalent of our Boy Scouts, later in the program were engaged in signaling by semaphore flags before the camera, with laughter and much byplay from the studio group as one of the Pioneers failed to remember certain of the signals.

In a second, smaller studio a hand puppet show was under rehearsal. By use of this traditional art form, a favorite with Russian children, stories were told in an exceedingly simple but effective manner. One camera was directed toward the stage, located above the heads of the puppeteers, whose hands controlled movements of the figures. A second camera intermittently shifted the action to close-ups of a group of children who were reading a large storybook which, page by page, introduced the corresponding scenes enacted by the puppets. The following Saturday afternoon the actual telecast would occur.

About half of the production and technical personnel are women. In the studios, they serve as camera technicians, master-control operators, and directors. Women also play a leading role as commentators and announcers. Moscow’s Television Center boasts five “telespeakerinas,” who combine the functions of commentator, announcer, speaker, lecturer, and reporter in a manner not yet introduced beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. All five are photogenic and outstanding for their charm, appealing voices, and poise. One of the most widely known is Valia Leontieva, whose beauty is acclaimed throughout Moscow and who has received nearly five hundred proposals of marriage during the past year.

Program transmissions of Moscow’s two channels normally run from seven to eleven o’clock on weekday evenings. On Saturdays and Sundays, programs usually start at two o’clock, although telecasts may begin at eleven in the morning or at other hours in the case of special events.

Approximately 60 per cent of the programs are live, and about half of these emanate from the studios of the center; the balance are relayed by microwave from diverse sources within the Moscow area, such as the Bolshoi Theater, famous for its ballet and opera; the huge sports stadium near Moscow University; various concert halls or music institutes; and other cultural centers or parks. Additional live programs originate at Moscow University or other educational centers, particularly the People’s Television University, which provides regular academic courses in the natural and technical sciences, economics, art, and literature to thousands of enrolled “telestudents.”

About 40 per cent of the programs are motion pictures. Since there are no commercial restrictions, there appears to be no problem in showing new films as soon as a fortnight after their first showing in theaters. Soviet television audiences are also becoming acquainted with some of the outstanding American and European films. As a result of telecasts of an Italian-American film version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, stars such as Mel Ferrer, Henry Fonda, and Audrey Hepburn now have become well known to Soviet viewers. A film of Holiday on Ice, produced in Moscow with the original music while the American group was in the city, also has been a featured attraction on Soviet television screens.

Wide use is made of educational and documentary films, in which Soviet producers have attained, over the years, an extremely high degree of excellence. Subjects of all types are handled by combinations of cartoon animation and puppetry or by straightforward photography.

Soviet television likewise has been successful in merging in an effective manner the combination of the motion picture film medium and video camera pickup of live on-the-spot news. Television trucks of extremely modern design, in bright colors and glistening chrome, go wherever news is being made. Television and film cameramen cover the events thoroughly, with the result that completed films can be quickly processed at the center and dispatched within hours to outlying regional stations by jet planes. When President Eisenhower visits the Soviet Union this month, there will be few public occasions when he will be out of sight of Soviet news cameramen.


Thanks are extended to the following for permission to reproduce works of art:

Maclean-Hunter Publishing Company, Ltd., Toronto, for the color separations for plates 8 and 10.

Alexander Marshack for the Kodachromes for plates 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 9.

Richard B. K. McLanathan for the photographs for plates 13 and 15, and pages 57, 74, and 85.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for the photographs for plates 12, 14, 17, and 18, and pages 67 and 110.

National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, Inc., New York, for photographs of the Bolshoi Ballet School on pages 101 and 104.

New York Graphic Society and UNESCO for plate l,from

USSR: Early Russian Icons.

Pan American World Airways for the photograph on page 114.

Sovfoto, New York, for the photographs for plates 7, 11, and 16, and the photograph of Mr. Ehrenburg, page 45.

Soviet Graphic: 1917—1957, published by the State Publishing Company, Moscow, for the illustrations on pages 34, 50, 87, 92, 96, 105, and 122.

The cover photograph is from The Stone Flower, Bolshoi Ballet, and is reproduced by courtesy of Sovfoto and the magazine USSR.