There is at least one thing that would make a night of American television seem wonderful: One night of Russian television. Sit through a single program about the construction of a Siberian railroad and "The Love Boat" starts looking like a veritable Good Ship Lollipop.
"World," public TV's outstanding series of acquired documentaries, will give American viewers a rare look at Russian television with "Soviet TV: Heroes, Workers and the Party Line," to be seen tonight at 10 on Channel 26. The Swiss-produced report is naively uncritical, but the excerpts it contain from Russian TV programs are revealingly depressing.
Oh, the Mussorgsky opera from a Moscow theater looks fairly exotic -- if clunkily choreographed -- but somehow a red-hot flash about this year's lemon crop in Tashkent seems a trifle on the tedious side, and "International Panorama," with its roundup of labor strikes in all those pitiful capitalist countries of the West, comes across as just a shade insanely boring.
"There is no sex or gratuitous violence on Soviet television." say narrator Richard Provost in a voice like 12-year-old Scotch. Ah, but this could give sex and gratuitous violence a good name.About the liveliest burst of decadence to be seen in the PBS sampler is a Western-influenced dance show in Moscow in which the male dancers have actually been permitted to wear jeans.
But Soviet television is not there to entertain viewers so much as to reinforce attitudes. It is controlled entirely by the state along the Leninist dictum that the press should be used as "propagandist, organizer and agitator."
When Provost says that Russian TV will broadcast virtually "no remark that doesn't have an official stamp," and we next see a show featuring a talking cockatoo, we can assume the bird is under strict orders to watch his language. Much more significantly, the nightly news program "Vrenya (which means "Time") beams out from Moscow the government's version of what is happening in Russia and the world.
A broadcast from February of this year led off with these hotski-totski top stories: "Economic News from the Urals," "Ukrainian Culture Festival in Moscow", and "In Cambodia, Things Are Returning to Normal" -- in that order. A report on Russian politics featured two candidates for the Supreme Soviet, one a reindeer-breeder, the other from a workers' collective.
There are 260 million people in the USSR, and 65 million TV sets, according to the documentary. A black-and-white TV will set a worker back two month's salary and a color set, four or five months. Hence, only one out of 20 sets sold are color.
"Work heroes" and World War II are the most recurrent themes in Soviet Programming. There are such shows as "For You, Young Women," a kind of contest in which the top prize is a bouquet of flowers, and "The Pioneers," aimed at indoctrinating youth. It appears that such chronic Soviet social problems as epidemic alcoholism are ignored; all news from the outside world is filtered through Tass, The Russian news agency.
Even from programs for which Big Brother served as producer, writer and director, however, one can get glimpses of the Russian people that are welcome and surely in some way representative. Most of the programs look laughably crude, but others convey surviving folk cultures with a provincialism that does have its charms.
Still, there is nothing to conflict with all reports about Soviet TV that come from those who have visited the country -- that it is awful, dry, dull, technically inferior and no fun. A TV official concedes that its whole point is to "help our party."
Watching this brief survey of Russian TV fosters certain conclusions about American TV by comparison. One is that no matter how meretricious or doodle-headed commerical TV may get, its possibilities for contributing something meaningful to everyday lives are still incomparably greater than a noncompetitive, state-controlled system could ever be.
Another is that while it must be in the nation's interest to improve and more generously finance American public television as an alternative to commerical, the idea of the government substantially increasingly its role has a nearly infinite number of grisly overtones.
There is a message, too, for all the do-gooding communications crusaders -- some of whom have, indeed, done a lion's share of good -- who think television should be "used" to do this and "used" to do that and thereby improved "the quality of life" for one and all. The question always remains: Who is going to decide which uses are proper? Who is even going to decide who gets to decide?
"Ring around the collar" may be onerous, but it's still preferable to gag around the mouth. American television -- I think I'll keep it.