Starlight Media: Solving wartime TV scheduling
BY Georgi R. Chakarov
Modern television in Europe had never worked in wartime conditions until this year when Russia decided to invade Ukraine for some vague reasons which the Russian propaganda is already finding hard to explain. The lack of precedents put Ukrainian TV channels in a situation where they had to create precedents, like the United News TV marathon which gathered the forces of six (later five, following the shutdown of Media Group Ukraine) broadcasters to inform viewers 24/7. Some channels stopped broadcasting fully, or went into a “repeat mode”, but others started reviving their schedules a few weeks after the start of the biggest continental war in the world since WWII.
Two of Starlight Media’s leading national channels, STB and Novyi, went as far as to offer what would almost look like a normal fall TV season schedule in peaceful times to their viewers. In this conversation with Georgi R. Chakarov, channel heads Liudmyla Semchuk and Olha Zadorozhna shared their thoughts on how they tackled a problem like scheduling a general entertainment channel in times of war.
Olha Zadorozhna
Let’s start with the first days of the invasion. How did your schedule change with the introduction of martial law in Ukraine?
The first days of the war were a shock to us. Then it was almost impossible to go to work in Kyiv. Many people were forced to leave the country or move to other cities for safety reasons. For example, the Program Director of the Novyi, Ira, lived in Irpin. She and her family spent a day in the bomb shelter. There was no regular contact with her. And it’s a miracle that she could leave the city with her children. At that moment, I told her not to think about work. I took over all the functions. And when she was in a safe place and exhaled, we went back to working together. This was the case with many other employees as well. 

Of course, during the first days of the war, it was essential for us to provide broadcasting. We realized how significant the role of television is, both as an emotional support and as the basis of information security. Since we had a prepared plan in case of war, and not even one, we managed - we were on air nonstop. First, the channel switched to general news mode. At the end of the second day of the war, we thought that television was not only a source of information but also a distraction for people. We decided to reformat the programming. When you run into a bomb shelter or are in a basement, you think about salvation, not what to switch for your children to watch. Therefore, our goal was to distract children from the war, provide emotional support, and assist their parents, who are busy solving complex security issues. On February 25 at 16.00, Novyi switched to children’s and teenage broadcasting.

We have an extensive library that helped us form a suitable programming. I collected all the fairy tales and cartoons about the struggle between light and darkness. We wanted parents to be able to explain to their children what is happening in words they can understand: “Now there is a war between good and evil, like in a fairy tale. You see, this hero also fights like us. He won, and we will win because we are on the side of good.” That is why, in the early days, Novyi aired Harry Potter films.

A Couple for a Million

Since Novyi is widely distributed and available on different platforms, parents were required to perform simple actions - put headphones on their child and click on Novyi. I can say that the response to the programming was amazing. Everyone solved their main humanitarian problem at that moment - to distract the child so they would not hear the constant explosions and sirens, frightening news.

We had another excellent initiative. On the OCE and Novyi channels, we launched the OCE – Dopomoha (Help) ticker with essential information for everyone who needed it in Ukraine. The line broadcasts up-to-date information about working pharmacies, hospitals, post office branches, gas stations, shops, help points, train schedules, hotlines, refugee assistance centers in Ukraine, and other helpful information. This was done before various chatbots and websites coordinating Ukrainians to get help were launched. The most exciting thing is that this project was made by people who have a very distanced relationship to the air - our financiers, accountants, and administrators. The Financial Director of the Broadcasting Division Tania Kostova led the process. She mastered the technique of launching a running line in the air remotely. We received hundreds of different applications, which we independently processed and, thus, helped many people. Can you imagine, they helped people to get married in Kharkiv?! It was the power of television and our colossal mission at that moment.

At what point did you decide to start airing entertainment programs again?
In fact, we did not stop the entertainment broadcast. We saw from digital content that the more people got used to the state of war, more and more often they looked for places where they could distract, switch, and breathe at least for a short time. And we slowly began to change genres - we began to move from entertainment content to comedy content. We very carefully added one comedy a week - first a family comedy, then about cats and dogs. Then we saw that the demand was growing, people wanted more. Since the end of August, we have already started showing comedies of our own production and launched the series A House For Happiness on the air. But I want to note that not every comedy content has a place on the air today. For example, we won’t broadcast the show Battle of the Sexes, of course. We are very careful in the selection of content.

Master Shef

How do we understand what can be shown on the air? Our analytics department, led by Oksana Pipich, conducts research that allows us to understand what content is relevant now and what is not worth showing. But, of course, we rely on our feelings and experiences. The team and I had a very difficult discussion about whether there is a place for laughter during the war and to what extent comedy can be present during this period. We had diverse views. But then we concluded that laugh is the answer to pain. In this challenging time, Ukrainians joke a lot - both at home and on social networks. Laughter helps us overcome the pain that each of us feels right now.

When we started working with comedy, the team and I agreed on the rules - what can cause laughter and what cannot, what can be laughed at and what cannot, and what can be made fun of and what cannot. And this is all Novyi, where it would seem that everything is easy and optimistic (smiles - ed.). Now, we are already writing several comedy stories and believe they will work out. The same applies to projects - we have found like-minded people and started working.

We know that the official audience data is not available at the moment, but you still have some numbers. What do they show? What are people in Ukraine watching on TV now?
Everything suggests that nothing has changed - what people watched before the war, they are watching now. Yes, for the first seven days we all consumed only news. But then, when people decided on the main source of news for themselves, they immediately returned to consuming entertainment content. I feel like the switch between news and entertainment content happened quickly.

Yes, Novy grew during the war. This was influenced by a large number of factors: the United News telethon, which included all the leaders of television; reformatted programming, the exit from the market of Media Group Ukraine. During these changes, Novy Kanal managed to reflect the public demand and became the leader in television viewing.


You could have continued to air reruns but you still opted to bring some major premieres this fall. Why?
The first reason is that any content has an expiration date. The series has more, and the projects have less. It is impossible to delay for long, we are a business that must earn.

In addition, the concept of a hero as such has changed. Now we have very understandable heroes - our defenders. Therefore, content filmed before February 24 quickly loses relevance and becomes inappropriate. This was our reason for both choosing and deciding to launch the content that we have. As for the series, we go very modestly and broadcast little by little. But we have more “on the shelf” (smiles). Firstly, you need to stretch this pleasure, and secondly, to earn.

What shows will your viewers see during this “wartime” season?
This fall season is very unusual because it started during wartime. Novyi will show premieres and good old projects this fall. Today, the project of our development A Couple for a Million is on air. The premiere is going well, which makes us very happy. People responded - the show is watched both on television and digitally. We see millions of views on YouTube. Also on the air are new series of the project Cons on the Web. In October, the channel will show the long-awaited premiere of the series The Marshall with a Chelsea border collie in the lead role. Next, the Novyi audience is waiting for the premiere of the new 24-episode series Younger (remake of the US hit series) about a woman who divorces a man and tries to restart her career. Moreover, Younger can get a sequel.

Right now, Novyi is not filming anything yet, we are still writing, preparing, piloting. All will be soon. 

Are you also looking to commission or buy new shows at the moment?
We already have plans and negotiations are underway. Still, commercial activity has just begun, we are entering into commodity-money relations. We will sign a contract and we can tell you the details later on. 
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