As new heads of television were announced and revamped news operations put in place, or when the state moved in and began to prevent stations from projecting any point of view that did not actively support the Kremlin's, it always seemed to me that there was one element most took for granted: the public. Put the material before them, and they will assimilate it. Or run mass-public opinion surveys and see the “big picture.” But no one much cared about the ordinary, average viewer watching the screen in the provinces. Only Moscow mattered. Yet it was a mistake to assert so confidently what viewers were thinking and talking about as the news came on. This study examines precisely that question: how did ordinary viewers come to their conclusions? More specifically, what were the tools they used to take apart positive stories to meet the standards of the questioning public? This is the final link in the circle of the most powerful medium in Russia: not why people thought certain programs popular or unpopular but, drilling down, how, what did they rely on, what instruments did they use – and, unquestionably, some had many more than others – to process what they saw.
During the course of writing this book, I came to know from transcripts and films these ordinary viewers gathered in focus groups in four Russian cities. They were lively, passionate, angry, funny, and some diffident.