"In the TV industry, drastic steps don't work"

26.12.2014, Viewpoint

Art critic, journalist

Two years ago, the Public TV Company of Armenia acquired new management and staff. Much has changed at the station, the first of which perhaps is the restrained approach, resulting in previously rating-seeking (rather shallow) programs and TV dramas being discontinued. The quality of the movies being shown clearly increased while the volume of advertising decreased.  

The programming of Armenia's First Channel may cause objections, but it's not repelling, which is already a great achievement in Armenia's TV industry, as uniform and low-quality productions (blood, scandal, and imitations of modernity) in recent years dominate the airwaves.

Public TV and Radio Company of Armenia Chair Ruben Jaghinyan doesn't aspire to comment in the press on the First Channel's new strategy, being sure that that which exists on air today is only the peak of a huge iceberg, while the foundation is the invisible and extensive work. He believes the changes taking place at Armenia's state broadcaster (both structural and contextual) have a huge ideological platform and are aimed at shaping a more prepared and deeply perceptive audience. "We are trying to shape 'white airwaves'," he says, referring to the antithesis of yellow journalism

Jaghinyan (also transliterated as Jhaghinyan) compares the First Channel's new strategy with the tangent effect. He uses this mathematical term to make the audience–TV production connection visible, which has always been dual (one is is dependent on the other, as with supply and demand). And since in recent years the format and language of partly glamorous, partly propaganda (to a large extent, meaningless) television programs call the shots and are in demand, the Public TV Company of Armenia is going to try to gradually shape a new supply. 

How would you describe the model which the First Channel is striving for and which you're getting ready to implement?

The Public TV Company of Armenia has three stages of development. We have clearly outlined those stages and will follow them. We are currently at the first stage, which assumes changes — with the aim of building the new.

In the second stage, which will begin in September 2015, the TV station's progress will be noticeable, since programs will become more interesting. That is to say, today's pilot, experimental model slowly will become a deeper and, in the good sense of the word, entertainment model. 

The third stage will start two years later, when the TV company that we love and, I hope, watch with pride will be established — and not only in Armenia, but also around the world.

The perceptions and expectations of the Public TV Company are very different, and we try to take different viewpoints into account. Initially, we conducted amateur polls, and then we moved to a professional approach. The Public Opinion Research Center, a part of the Public TV and Radio Company of Armenia, conducts very serious research and determines audience expectations through target groups.  

"Before starting any series, first you have to have a clear picture of how the eighth or tenth episode of that series will be. And as long as that's not clear, you can't start"

There's probably one option: it should be assumed that the audience is smarter and more open-minded than it is in reality and proven through polls. 

It's desirable to use professional formulas. The mathematical concept of the tangent is a very good description of what we're doing. The tangent touches different pinnacles and raises them by one degree. And then it touches again but from a higher point and stretches the entire line from behind it. And it continues like this, thus opening the possibility of transforming the overall picture of perception step by step.

There are situations when drastic, shock moves don't work. It's like this particularly in the television sector. You can't introduce changes all at once, since many of the changes might pass by the audience and not leave a trace. About a hundred people will marvel [at the changes], but the majority of the audience, seeing an unexpected and complex thing, will immediately change the channel. Whereas the changes made with the tangent mechanism are very effective, though, of course, they are implemented more slowly. 

It's not possible to make changes at once and drastically, which is why we chose the stage-by-stage option. By changing step by step, we move forward. This is a process that can't be accelerated (if we rush, the entire boat will capsize). If you look closely, you'll see changes once every six months. 

So many programs are changing and will change. We all communicate with different people, including on social networking sites and in focus groups; we study sociological research findings and see the average audience level. We need to not only take into account that level of perception, but also try and change it. 

There are things that are not befitting for the Public TV Company. In any case, it has to compete and win with its good quality. 

Which stage of the Public TV Company's new policy will the news programs be in? In any case, currently there are no political, analytical, or even serious discussion programs; there are only traditional news broadcasts. 

In general, news is the most difficult, especially in public television.  And we prefer not to hurry. I think, those responsible for news broadcasts at the First Channel today do everything possible to maintain balance.  

News programs have two main components: administration and equipment, and pure content. Content is gradually changing (we can't ignore this). 

It's true, we don't yet have a political discussion program. But not because it's not possible at the Public TV Company, but because we haven't yet found the format that will please us. For the same reason, there also aren't any entertainment or comedy programs. We are still discussing their final model.   

By the way, invisible but intensive laboratory work is in full swing at the Public TV Company; programs are constantly tested, developed, and prepared as pilots; topics are discussed, and hosts invited. Some things work out, some things not, but there is movement. 

"We are digitizing what we have in both the "Yerevan" studio and the TV company's archives [...] This is done on an important precondition: the archive has to be uploaded online and be available to everyone"

Before starting any series, first you have to have a clear picture of how the eighth or tenth episode of that series will be. And as long as that's not clear, you can't start.

You mean to say, I can expect to see on Public TV those issues that are of interest, of concern, and visible in society? 

Yes, that's our goal.

And is there competition, a race for ratings with other channels?

I can't say there's no competition, simply that ratings occupy the place they are supposed to occupy (and nothing more). It was clear from the beginning that by making changes to the programming we will have a drop in ratings. But everything is yet to come, and when our stable audience is formed, we will be at the forefront.   

After all, water cuts [even] rock. If you constantly try to change values drop by drop, you'll win. By the way, I mean not only Public TV, but also all TV stations. We all need change. It makes no difference that we play for different teams; we are all members of the same collective and we play under one flag. I hope the directors of the other TV stations think this way too. 

The Public TV Company of Armenia is the owner of the national wealth, the archives. In what state are the archives currently, and are you preparing to publicly circulate the archival material? It also could become the basis for several TV series. 

 An enormous amount of work has been (and is being) done in the public TV and radio archives, with the goal of collecting, updating, and arranging the archive. The problem is that the TV company's archival units are not recorded anywhere, and we have no way of verifying what we have. A lot of material has been lost, disappeared. By the way, much is lost not because of conspiracies, but because of a careless approach. The [celluloid] film is physically worn, being kept for years in warehouses or basements that didn't have the necessary conditions.

In any case, we are digitizing what we have in both the "Yerevan" studio and the TV company's archives, and we plan to finish this stage in 2016. This is done on an important precondition: the archive has to be uploaded online and be available to everyone. I'm talking about the entire archive and not just parts of it. 

A lot is being done, though it might not be apparent at first glance. In a few years we'll have a professional TV company, every aspect of which works clearly — beginning from the corridors and ending with the archives.  

There's the impression that the TV industry is sort of tired: there are no new ideas and enthusiasm has diminished.

Frankly speaking, there is a tired and indifferent approach not only at the TV station, but also everywhere. It's generally difficult to measure happiness. Often people hide their emotions; they're embarrassed to show that they're happy. You ask them, "How are you?" and they say, "All right, but it could be better."  

Established, self-sufficient, and happy people have always created a contrast with the gray, drab background. It was like that during the Soviet years and it's like that now. And in many programs, we're trying (albeit with great difficulty) to break that approach, to awaken the ability to admire and appreciate.

"We don't yet have a political discussion program. But not because it's not possible at the Public TV Company, but because we haven't yet found the format that will please us"

We have a great desire to film a series on 1970s Yerevan. Also, on Karabakh. I think, during those years we lost an invisible but precious thing or we weren't able to carry it to the present day. Of course, there has been the good and the bad, but lacking in our vault of memories today is the redefining of those years. 

Since values and technology have changed, people strive toward easy humor, shallow emotions, and light soap opera passions. The times are like this. Living determines consciousness. But during this time we've missed many important things. He who lives here and has hope, who thinks about the future of his family and children has to have reasons to be proud. 

Fortunately or unfortunately, these people have a demand for television. I think, television definitely has to remind [the public] about [living] a dignified life.

That is, to produce serious programs that have an educational role?

There definitely have to be those messages, of course largely hidden — through games, soap operas. 

I'm sure that a lot originates from a sense of dignity. For me, for example, our country's flag and coat of arms are very precious symbols. Probably this pride took hold in me from a young age and will never be erased. In the 1990s, during my years at [the Russian comedy TV show and contest] KVN ("Club of the Funny and Inventive"), how we would be perceived in Armenia and how we would be accepted after our victories (or defeats) had enormous importance for me personally. There was unspeakable tension: war, victims, our game, and international conflict…

Obviously, it's impossible to solve all the problems with television, but it can advance the audience. That's the effect of the tangent. 

Television is exciting and infectious work. It kills indifference and the lackadaisical approach toward one's own work. 

I like to work, meet, think, discuss, debate, adapt, and feel the professional energy of those around me. After all, tasting change, I begin to get enjoyment from work. Otherwise, work is a burden, stagnation. 

I want all the employees of the Public TV Company of Armenia to be ready for changes and to infect each other with that energy.

New Year's Eve is approaching, when the TV is on in almost every home. What new offer does Armenia's public TV have during these holidays?

Over the New Year's holidays, there will be happy, joyful, festive programs, as is usually the case on all the channels. I'm not promising any surprises. Instead, I promise that those watching Public TV will enjoy the color, image, and songs.

Interview by Nune Hakhverdyan.

P.S. The first part of Ruben Jaghinyan's interview can be read here.

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