BBC For Russian speakers

CABLE TV surfers will be forgiven for thinking they have drunk too much vodka when they flick channels next month to see Jeremy Clarkson expounding on the latest car model — in Russian.

The Top Gear presenter is set to join John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, and a host of other television personalities, on TB+, a London-based satellite channel licensed to broadcast BBC programmes dubbed into Russian.

The project is the idea of Thomas Puskas, a Viennese entrepreneur of Hungarian origin, who, as the sole investor, has ploughed $6 million (£3.6 million) of his own capital into the scheme.

Puskas, managing director and founder of Angloasia, the company that owns and operates TB+, is confident that the commercial strength of the BBC brand will justify his investment. He said: “The content and the quality of BBC programmes are interesting to Russian people.”

Puskas’s confidence in the success of the venture stems from the enthusiastic response to a trial run earlier this year. After the company received the go-ahead from the BBC in February, Puskas set up a service offering BBC news for three hours a day on terrestrial channels in Russia’s Ekaterinburg region, as well as further afield via satellite.

According to Puskas, the launch was boosted by the BBC’s coverage of the US-led war on Iraq, as a largely anti-war Russian public aligned itself with the broadcaster. He said: “The BBC reflected the attitude of Russians to the war and that was popular with the people.”

Riding on a wave of success from the initial roll-out, the businessman, who speaks five languages, including German, Italian and Russian, and is learning Chinese, decided to take the idea a logical step forward. The bulk of the initial $6 million investment, enough to fund the channel for the first year of its life, has been spent on buying the rights to the programmes and on infrastructure costs, including the building of a translation centre.

Based at the London Playout Centre in the West End, the translation centre will house between 30 and 35 translators, some formerly with the BBC, who will be responsible for recording, translating and finally re-broadcasting the dubbed-over finished product. Especially challenging will be the task of translating the news and dubbing it to go out live, in real-time, to a potential audience of more than 65 million cable subscribers.

At first the channel will be broadcast for 12 hours a day. By next spring, it is set to develop into a 24-hour service accessible to Russian expatriates in more than 30 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Puskas envisions the service also being available, by the middle of next year, to viewers in the eastern part of China, as well as the former Soviet states of Central Asia, including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Although 80 per cent of the channel’s content will be sourced from the BBC, including favourites such as Hard Talk, Talking Movies, Click Online, Top Gear and Simpson’s World, the remaining 20 per cent is set to be made up of documentaries produced by independent Russian and Eastern European companies.

Puskas, who is 40 years old, was born in Vienna to Hungarian emigré parents who had fled their homeland in 1956 after the popular uprising against the Russians. He studied economics and art history at the University of Vienna — “the first for work and the second for love” — before going on to represent Hungary at the European Youth Parliament in Strasbourg between 1979 and 1981.

After the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s, Puskas, who had earlier opted for a Hungarian passport rather than an Austrian one, found himself well-placed to advise Russian companies looking to establish a business presence in Hungary. After 1989, as his passport accorded him freedom of movement in Eastern Europe, he worked as a consultant to both the Hungarian Government and the Russian Government.

In 1993, Puskas moved to the United States in order to indulge in his passion for art (his other great love is travelling) and spent the next two years studying Asian art. However, the economist in him soon re-emerged and it combined with his conclusion that “you can hardly make a living from art” to lead him to move back to Hungary, where he established himself as a wine merchant.

It was while dabbling in consulting once again at the end of the 1990s, that Puskas came into contact with various media organisations and the germ of the TB+ idea was born. He said: “I saw that on Russian TV channels the content was one of the weakest points — there would be 15 TV channels and all of them would be exactly the same.”

With the rouble crisis in 2000, Puskas moved to Ekaterinburg and executed his plan. “I wanted to concentrate on factual programmes, so I contacted the BBC and obviously chose the right moment because the BBC loved the idea,” he said.

The TB+ channel is ultimately expected to fund itself through corporate advertising revenue from the wealthy Russian diaspora across the West and the Middle East. Although Puskas disclosed that he is also in negotiations with UK companies for advertising deals, he declined to disclose forecast revenues, although he added that he expects the channel to climb into profit within the first 12 months.
Russian speakers across the world will soon be able to watch BBC World programming dubbed into Russian by watching TB+, the new satellite channel due to launch before the end of the year.

Featuring news and lifestyle programming from BBC World together with documentary and factual programming from Russian programme makers, TB+ will broadcast 12 hours a day from launch, extending to a 24-hour service by spring 2004.

TB+ is available free to air to satellite homes, and also to cable subscribers across Europe and Russia in more than thirty countries, including Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Germany, Turkey, Poland, France, Israel, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Serbia and Moldova.

Broadcasting from the London Playout Centre in the UK, TB+ can reach potential audiences of more than 65 million cable subscribers, 28 million dth homes, and up to 2 million hotel rooms via the Hot Bird 2 satellite, which provides full coverage of Europe and Russia, the middle east, and parts of Africa and Asia.

Managing Director Thomas Puskas said - "Now Russian speakers can enjoy the best of BBC World, together with original programming from leading Russian programme makers."