Russia Today Television Misses Launch Date

APYury Novosyolov, left, Margarita Simonyan and Michael Alexander speaking at Russia Today's offices on Thursday.
Russia Today, the state-funded English-language satellite television station, missed its planned launch date Thursday, and the station's directors worked to put a positive spin on what was instead the start of a round-the-clock technical rehearsal.

"Today, we're beginning the technical broadcast, but we don't want to give a definite date for the full launch now because of problems we may still encounter," Margarita Simonyan, Russia Today's 25-year-old editor, told reporters during a tour of the station's headquarters at the RIA-Novosti state news agency.

Simonyan insisted that the launch had never been scheduled for Sept. 15.

However, numerous sources at the station said the staff had been working under intense pressure to launch in time for President Vladimir Putin's address to the UN General Assembly on Thursday. Recruitment advertisements in Russian and foreign newspapers also stated that the channel would begin broadcasting in September.

Simonyan said the station planned to go on the air by the end of the year.

Simonyan also touted the credentials of the 72 foreigners, mostly from Britain, among the station's staff of 344. "All of those 72 have experience in television journalism," she said. "They have worked at networks such as BBC, CNN and ABC."

People who work or have worked at the station, however, said many of the foreigners who were hired had little or no experience in journalism. The current employees declined to be identified, citing a contractual prohibition against speaking to the media.

Alexei Mayorov, the channel's news director who for 13 years served as CNN's assignment editor in Moscow, acknowledged difficulties in setting up the channel.

"There have been all kinds of complications," he said. "We have many people on staff who are dealing with technology they never have [used] before."

The channel's news production is based on Dalet, a digital archiving software package that lets broadcast journalists compose news stories, complete with titles, graphics and film.

Language barriers between Russians and foreigners with no knowledge of each other's language have hampered work as well, some employees said.

Plans to create Russia Today were announced in June. Simonyan reiterated on Thursday that the station would present "a Russian perspective on world and domestic events" to counter depictions of Russia that were "distorted or incomplete or just nonsense."

During the tour, television monitors throughout the station's spacious, modern offices showed British news anchor Sasha Young presenting segments on Putin's UN address, insurgent attacks in Iraq and pre-election violence in Afghanistan that lasted several minutes each. Segments about jailed former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky's appeal and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's presidential ambitions lasted less than a minute.

Station directors insisted that being a government news channel would not prevent Russia Today from reporting objectively.

"It's very clear how to achieve balance. It's one of the most obvious tasks a journalist has," Simonyan said. "There are two sides to a story, and you show them."

Simonyan hesitated when a journalist asked whether she would consider broadcasting a comment from Akhmed Zakayev, a London-based Chechen rebel envoy, in a report about the Beslan terrorist attack.

"That would mainly depend on what exactly he said. That's not censorship -- it depends on whether he says something interesting and relevant," she said.

Simonyan is a former Kremlin pool correspondent for Rossia state television.

English news editor Michael Alexander, who worked as a correspondent for APTV from 1994 to 2002 and has a 20-year career in television, said that news reporting was inevitably sensitive.

"It's a bit naive to think that politics don't ever play a role," he said.

"Which is not to say they do here," he added after a pause.

Simonyan said that once the station had its formal launch, it would form a board of governors to monitor the objectivity of its reporting.

News anchor Liz George, who worked for CNN International in London for three years before answering a Russia Today ad in the Guardian newspaper, said she saw her one-year contract with the station as an adventure.

"Starting this new network -- it's a piece of history," George said. "And living in a country where you don't speak the language is incredibly interesting. Russia has always fascinated me."

British television consultant Keith Hayes said he had been training news anchors at Russia Today since July. "We had some people with very little experience, but there's been enormous improvement," Hayes said. "We have a product today that we wouldn't be embarrassed to show the world."

He said he had previously worked with the CBC, BBC, Reuters and CNBC.

The station plans to broadcast in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa. Simonyan said negotiations were under way with cable and satellite television carriers including DishNet, Comcast and AsiaSat. The station has a 2005 budget of $30 million in bank loans and government investments.

"We believe that this channel will find a far bigger audience than we expect," said Russian news editor Yury Novosyolov. "Our great strength is the international makeup of our team."

"We're not competing with BBC or CNN; we're absolutely our own project," Simonyan added. "If we're competing with anything, we're competing with public opinion about Russia."

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