Soviet television is in trouble. Its one and only sponsor is complaining that it frequently fails to speak "to either the mind or the heart," and change is in the air at the state radio and television committee's headquarters on Moscow's north side.
The typical Russian viewer might hope this spells the end to programs such as the "Agricultural Hour," where, as one cynical observer put it, "they interview some stubby women with gold teeth who milked 150 cows at a time while whistling the Soviet national anthem."
But if that's what the average viewer expects, he is likely to be disappointed. What is changing, following an unusually sharp attack on the Soviet media by President Leonid I. Brezhnev at November's plenary session of the Communist Party's Central Committee, is television's style rather than its content.
The most significant programming change so far came Dec. 1 with the debut of a new, twice-nightly, 15-minute news program called "Today in the World."
Like its predecessors, the new program offers a decidedly Soviet view of world events. On one recent show, commentator Anatoly Tatapov reported on anti-American rioting in Iran, on the promise of a continued socialist tilt in Algeria despite the death of President Houari Boumedienne and on the Western press' lack of interest in the forthcoming "truly democratic" elections for the Supreme Soviet.
Still, "Today in the World" is daring by Soviet standards. Compared with other news programs here, where the vocabulary is right out of the Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, the language is much less stilted. Occasionally, the seven rotating commentators on the new program even ad lib.
"It has been recommended from above that we be more free in expressing our opinions," Anatoly Ovsyanikov, one of the featured commentators, said in an interview.
"Today in the World" commentators sit behind a large mahogany desk before an expanse of bookcases, flanked by giant maps. There have been live reports from correspondents in other world capitals, and on at least one occasion the commentator had the latest issues of Time and Newsweek on the desk in front of him.
"The shows have a feeling of spontaneity about them compared with the absolutely sterile format of having some commenator sitting there and reading from Tass (the official Soviet news agency)," a Western diplomat observed. "I think they've taken a very careful look at how these things are packaged in the West. The desk, the lighting, even the camera position is reminiscent of how we do it."
Ovsyanikov listed three factors that influenced the format: a growing "global news hunger, our study of foreign experience and your propaganda." Western radio stations -- the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp. -- are expanding their broadcasts to the Soviet Union, and "We want to make counterpropaganda," he said.
What finally triggered the change, however, was Brezhnev's criticism.
"We have a strong, qualified propaganda apparatus," he said at the November plenum. "But unfortunately, this apparatus is not always used effectively. There is a shortage of principal statements of substance that deal with topical problems of economic and social life. Newspaper materials and television and radio transmission lack persuasiveness... they are overloaded with general phrases that do not say anything to either the mind or the heart."
Brezhnev was particularly critical of foreign news coverage.
"It is high time to make reporting on international affairs prompter, more understandable and more concrete," he said. "International commentary should follow hot on the heels of events... What we need is not a repetition of the accepted truths but an in-depth and well-argued analysis on the facts of international life."
Brezhnev said the impetus for his criticism came from letters to the party's policymaking Central Committee, letters that indicated a "lag in ideological works" that could do "great harm." He announced that a special commission had been set up in the Politburo "to work out measures for the improvement of ideological and mass political work."
Within days of Brezhnev's speech, "Today in the World" made its debut. Also, the government newspaper, Izvestia, introduced a new column on international events called "Day of the Planet." Included is a small feature called "Mad, Mad World" that recently reported on a French diplomat who had killed his wife and three children, on the murder of a Mexican boxer, and on an expected increase in Japanese crime this year.
If only because of its emphasis on greater timeliness and commentary, Brezhnev's message was significant for Soviet television, because television may be the Kremlin's most powerful ideological tool.
There are about 60 million television sets in use across this vast nation, and about 85 percent of the estimated 260 million people are within range of a transmitter.
Muscovites have a choice of four channels. Channel 1 carries nationwide network programs, Channel 2 carries programs of local interest, Channel 3 is the educational channel and Channel 4 offers dramas, concerts, films and literary programs. In addition, many outlying cities offer a limited amount of local programming, concentrated on local industry and agriculture.
While it is a powerful tool, there is ample evidence that television is failing to live up to its potential. Viewers complain endlessly about the deadly dullness of the programming.
"We don't have the same kind of problem with excessive television viewing that you do," a Siberian television newsman commented to a Western journalist. "There's so much political programming. People aren't likely to sit and watch that hour after hour."
The Soviet Union's primary television news program is the nightly "Bremya" (Time), aired at 9 o'clock. The importance the government attaches to it is suggested by the effort it makes to attract the largest possible audience. Sometimes it begins a movie or a special music program at 7:30 p.m., interrupts it with "Bremya" and then shows Part II afterward.
"When 'Bremya' is on they usually have something even duller on all the other channels," a Moscow man said.
Still, there is evidence that the program is not as popular as Soviet officials would like it to be. A Muscovite who recently spent several weeks in a hospital recalled that the TV viewing room would often be filled for a movie, a concert or a sporting event, but "when 'Bremya' came on only three or four would be left."