If It Bleeds, It Leads

How Ukraine is Upending Putin’s Olympics Media Strategy

The Olympic rings are reflected in a puddle at the Olympic Park for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, January 30, 2014. Phil Noble / Courtesy Reuters

Russians love sports. They always have. Like their counterparts in other countries, they believe that athletic prowess reflects national strength. Russians also like television. The country has hundreds of channels, and although young people might reach for their cell phones or laptops in the big cities, as many as 85 percent of Russian citizens still depend on television for their news.

The Olympics, which start today, will bring these two loves together. Across the world, round-the-clock television footage will feature white-knuckle competitions and emotional celebrations in Russia’s staggeringly beautiful Sochi, a resort town ringed by the snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus. Russian President Vladimir Putin will get the chance to show a vast global audience how modern and powerful -- in soft and hard terms -- his country is. He will no doubt be pleased if the foreigners who have questioned Russia’s ability to pull off the games have to retract their words.

But if the days leading up to the games are any indication, Russians watching at home will see slightly different coverage. After a difficult year of protests and economic malaise, a well-run Olympics would be a good reassurance to domestic viewers that their country is back on the upswing. Unfortunately, however, events in Ukraine are getting in the way. So, as Russians tune in to the familiar box, what will they see?

Like many countries, Russia has a number of television stations that broadcast only sports, but many of those require special sets. Russians can also get sports programming beamed in by satellite, but the subscription fee is often prohibitively high. As a consequence, the vast majority of Russians watch one of the three domestic state-controlled TV channels for news and entertainment.

Of the trio, Channel One draws in the biggest audience for its nightly official news broadcast. The network has been around for ages, serving up raves of every Russian leader since Nikita Khrushchev. The brief tenure of President Boris Yeltsin changed things a bit. The

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