In the Spotlight: Belarussian Television

By Anna Malpas

This week, The New York Times web site wrote about a Belarussian sitcom - not two words you often see together - that the makers of a U.S. show say ripped off their ideas without buying the rights.

The Belarussian sitcom on Minsk's CTV channel is called "Theorists" and is about scientists working on building a nuclear power station. Too close to revealing state secrets, you might think, but the nerdy heroes are distracted from splitting neutrons by Natasha, the blonde who works at their canteen.

This plotline bears an uncanny resemblance to "The Big Bang Theory," a U.S. sitcom in which two nerdy physics researchers live next to a streetwise blonde waitress. The U.S. producer Chuck Lorre wrote a note in the show's credits saying Warner Brothers lawyers had advised him not to bother suing "because the TV production company that is ripping us off is owned and operated by the government of Belarus." He poked fun at Belarus' major export of "cattle byproducts" and demanded compensation in the form of felt hats.

I thought that a Belarussian sitcom would be in the Belarussian language, but it turns out that it's in Russian - as are almost all Belarussian television shows. The makers said in a news broadcast that they hope to sell the show to Russia and Ukraine.

Only a few clips are available on the Internet, as Belarussian television doesn't seem to have gone in for YouTube in a big way. In one clip, chemist Vsevolod nervously attempts to flirt with the seductive Natasha as he buys buns. "You're as beautiful as a fibroblastoma," he fumbles. "I suppose you're going to say my eyes are like photons," she parries, as he nods shamefacedly. It turns out that Natasha is more interested in the luxuriantly sideburned caretaker, who treats her with free buns.

In another clips, two of the brainy heroes ruin the caretaker's coffee break by answering all the clues of his crossword in split seconds.

The male characters wear primary-colored clothes, and the blonde reveals plenty of cleavage. Somehow, I doubt that Belarussian power stations are really like this. But it's a fascinating insight into the world of Belarussian television.

Flicking through the schedules, I found that the Belarussians are subjected to an almost unremitting diet of old Russian series. But they also have their own shows, many of which bear a strange resemblance to Russian equivalents.

Russia has a daily show called "Good Night, Little Ones," which lulls small children off to sleep with rather drab dog, pig and bird puppets and former Miss Universe Oksana Fyodorova. The Belarussian answer is called "Good Evening, Little One," and it is hosted by two puppets wearing night caps called Ugo and Lyoka. I read a rumor on the Internet that the show was pulled off the air when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez visited.

Other shows are similar to Russian ones but with a local twist. One show is called "The Magnificent Five" and pits teams from companies and organizations against each other in a singing competition. There is a similar show on Russian television called "Singing Company," which features telecoms companies and supermarkets. But the winners of the Belarussian show are rather different - the latest were the Emergency Ministry and the Dzerzhinsky chicken combine. Among the contestants in the latest series are the Spetsnaz, or Belarussian special forces, possibly singing "Feelings."

I also liked the sound of an aerobics show called "Simple Exercises." The presenter has a team of female sidekicks, and the channel promises that they are "a visual example of how wonderful you can feel at 78."


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