Failing Mission

09.17.15 5:13 AM ET

Putin’s Propaganda TV Lies About Its Popularity

Leaked documents from a rival Russian news network show that RT hugely exaggerates its global viewership. Its most-watched segments are on ‘metrosexuals, bums,’ and earthquakes.

A Kremlin-funded foreign propaganda venture is touted as a big success by backers, but documents provided to The Daily Beast suggest that it is woefully failing in its mission. RT, the 10-year-old network formerly known as Russia Today, appears to be misrepresenting its promulgated success at gaining a broad viewership and promoting the Kremlin’s agenda while spending as much as internationally renowned competitors. The network is also accused of exaggerating its audience and impact with its sole financier—the Russian government—and pretending that it has had a far bigger impact in the Western media sphere than it has, particularly online. Its highest-trafficked videos on YouTube, for instance, apparently pertain to “metrosexuals, bums, etc.” rather than anything political.

These disclosures, aimed at undermining RT’s bold self-assessment of its market share, were actually made by employees of the now-defunct RIA Novosti, a separate and rival Russian state-funded media venture, which set out to persuade the Kremlin that it was wasting its money on a failed propaganda vehicle—money that would be better spent on the more professional RIA Novosti. 

RT was a product of the TV-Novosti brand launched as an autonomous product by RIA in 2005. In late 2013, months after the documents provided to The Daily Beast were compiled, RIA Novosti was shuttered and state media was reorganized under one encompassing parent company, Rossiya Segodnya, or (somewhat confusingly given RT’s former name) Russia Today.

From 2005 to 2013, the Russian government spent 61.6 billion rubles—about $2 billion—on RT despite one of the current documents calling it “essentially an internet media company.”

The Daily Beast obtained these documents from Vasily Gatov, a former RIA Novosti employee who had a hand in their preparation. He says they were meant for top Kremlin officials. “Since RT’s earliest days, something always looked wrong to me,” Gatov said. “RT persistently pretended that it was much more important and much bigger than could be confirmed by any data. While RT’s internal reporting told their commissioner—the Russian government—that they’d managed to overcome CNN and the BBC in terms of viewership, no signs of this could be found in reliable data, audited and vetted by foreign sources. Their social media growth, reported in every public statement by RT as a ‘phenomenon,’ also looked suspicious.”

“At a certain point,” Gatov added, “such ‘irregularities’ in RT’s reporting became a part of a contest between RIA Novosti and RT. Both agencies relied heavily on state funds. Some of the research made earlier became a part of an argument around funding and policy directions with respect to Western audiences.”

Among the allegations made in the hundreds of pages of materials is that RT wrongfully described its English, Spanish, and Arabic-language broadcasts as reaching 630 million people worldwide in 2013. “In reality, that number is just the theoretical geographical scope of the audience,” one document deadpans, and the network’s only tangible success is found in several Arab countries. It claims the real audience is measured by internationally acknowledged ratings agencies, and those agencies don’t place RT anywhere near the numbers it claimed.

“Thank you for exposing the kind of corporate intrigue promoted by the former RIA management,” RT spokeswoman Anna Belkina told The Daily Beast in an email. “The claims made about RT’s operations bear no resemblance to reality.”

“Today RT has a reach of 700 million people across more than 100 countries; the reach in the U.S. is 85 million people,” she added. “In 2014 Nielsen research (commissioned by RT) found that 2.8 million people in seven major US urban areas (Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Diego) watch RT weekly.”

The RT-commissioned Nielsen report has never been released.

Gatov further claims that unlike typical high-profile news channels—which get paid “carriage fees” by cable providers for use of their content—RT pays cable providers to carry its content in their offerings. While not illegal, such arrangements typically occur with low-profile channels whose reach does not justify cable providers carrying it of their own accord. Dish Network and Time Warner Cable declined to comment on the terms of their business relationship with RT. Comcast did not return a request for comment.

RT, the documents note, is not present in Nielsen ratings for the U.S. for 2012, which it says start with channels with an audience of 18 million households. Nor does it make cable news channels rankings, meaning that, according to the documents, “the average daily viewership of RT programs in the US does not reach [30,000] people.”

“RT claims that ‘more than 100 million viewers in US cities receive the channel 24 hours a day via satellite and cable networks,’” the documents say.  In reality that’s just the total population of homes where “through cable networks, one can theoretically receive RT in a package with hundreds of others of channels.”

As of 2015, RT is still largely absent from cable news rankings.

The documents say that its viewership doesn’t even amount to 0.1 percent of Europe’s television audience, except in Britain, where the 2013 viewership was put at about 120,000 people daily: “In May 2013, RT occupied 175th place out of 278 channels in Great Britain, or 5th place out of 8 cable news channels in the UK.”

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However, even this metric has shrunk in the last two years. The most recent Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board ratings for U.K. television viewership put RT at 100,000 viewers a day, and 0.17 percent of the total viewing population.

The RIA Novosti team also purportedly debunked RT’s claim to have 7 million viewers across six European countries by explaining the numbers were extrapolated from a phone survey asking people simply, “Have you watched RT?” without specifying whether they were regular viewers or had only happened upon the channel once or twice but never returned to it.

“In 7 years of work,” the documents state, “RT has never divulged a single, absolute figure confirmed by measurements of its audience. All the press releases put out by the channel about its viewing abroad are based on playing with relative numbers: the audience doubled, the coverage is 60% greater than its competitors, and so on. The only absolute figure on the RT site is that the television audience consists of 630 million people in 100 countries of the world. In reality, this number is only the potential geographical scope of the audience.”

The RIA Novosti team also contested RT’s much-hyped online presence, especially the meaning of its outwardly circulated statistic—“chief object of pride for the channel”—that its YouTube account has had over 1 billion views. Most of the views, however, have come from videos “not pertaining to the main goals of the channel”—that is, providing a “Russian viewpoint” on global politics.

It also seems that “soft news”—described mordantly by the RIA Novosti team as “bums, metrosexuals, etc.”—accounted for 23 million views of RT's top 100 clips, which was far more traffic than any videos on Russian or Western politics or those featuring Vladimir Putin. Only 200,000, for example, watched Putin’s inauguration for his third term as Russia’s president; a meager 45,000 an exclusive interview he gave to RT. Putin’s most popular video? Singing “Blueberry Hill” at a charity benefit in St. Petersburg in 2010.

Of the top 100 most-watched over five years, 81 percent—344 million views—went to videos of natural disasters, accidents, crime, and natural phenomenon. RT’s political news videos, featuring the content by which it seeks to shape Western opinion and thus justify its existence, accounted for a mere 1 percent of its total YouTube exposure, with fewer than 4 million views.

Also, the “etc.” after bums and metrosexuals tilts heavily in the direction of natural disasters. RT’s top-five YouTube videos include one about Japan’s 2011 earthquake and one about a “golden voiced” homeless man from Ohio whose story went viral that same year. To RT’s credit, its most popular installment on the site is about Russia: a video of a meteor explosion that stirred panic in the Urals region in 2013.

The Daily Beast’s review of the RT YouTube page shows the most-watched videos have not changed since the RIA Novosti spreadsheet was created in 2013.

Worse for a network with its ever-rising budget—nearly 12 billion rubles for 2014—is that only 13 of the top 100 videos were made with original materials. The rest were based on materials obtained from other sources, “including video purchased from Western agencies” such as Reuters or the Associated Press, or social media users.

“High view counts for RT clips are explained by the fact that the channel uploads a lot of non-original content to [YouTube], which other TV channels don’t upload because of copyright restraints,” the documents explain. “RT purchases expensive web distribution rights and puts out clips made with agency content, while world news leaders upload content largely based on their own shooting.”

RT Documentary, cited as one of the brand’s least popular YouTube channels, got an average of 200 to 300 views per video in 2013. The Daily Beast found that now, only about 100 of RT Documentary’s videos have had more than 10,000 views. Many of the most-watched are part of a graphic birthing series called “newborn Russia.”

The RIA Novosti documents also note that even much-advertised programs, such as a talk show hosted by controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, seldom have high view counts on YouTube. (RT’s Assange channel videos, for instance, rarely top 100,000 views.)

Most of Belkina’s response to The Daily Beast’s specific questions focused on RT’s online presence. “Online, according to SimilarWeb, RT has greater audience than any other non-Anglo-Saxon international TV new channel. On YouTube, RT is #1 TV news network in the world with 2.7 billion views (nearly 1.5 billion of that is on its flagship English-language channel),” she wrote in an email.

“RT thrives on covering topics that make the U.S. look bad,” a flattering New York magazine profile of the network stated in 2013, the year RIA Novosti’s opposition research was commissioned. “Third-party candidates, after all, embody defiance of America’s ruling political elite. Occupy Wall Street gave us images of NYPD officers pepper-spraying peaceful protesters and roughing up members of the press.”

However, interspersed with coverage of Occupy or dark-horse Democratic candidates is RT’s more frequent fare of conspiracy theories and Kremlin-driven disinformation campaigns about how, say, the CIA invented the Ebola virus as a biological weapon or how the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job.” More recently, RT has suggested that the chemical attack in Damascus in August 2013 was “staged” by anti-government rebels, and that the Ukrainian government was guilty of “genocide” in its ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists.

Such frequent dips into the fever swamps of falsifiable nonsense have landed the network in trouble in its most successful European market. Earlier this year, Ofcom, Britain’s national media regulator, announced that it was holding its sixth inquiry into RT’s alleged violations of broadcasting standards on impartiality. (The maximum penalty for falling afoul of Ofcom is losing one’s television license, which means ceasing to broadcast in Britain.)

The network freely admits that it traffics in “alternative” explanations for internationally scrutinized events—albeit explanations that have little or no basis in fact. Nor is it a coincidence that these broadcasts are presented by polished, English-speaking presenters who look and sound as if they might have stepped off the sets of MSNBC or the BBC.

Which is precisely the point. “RT names its competitors the news channels CNN, Fox, BBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Sky and also channels funded by governments—Al Jazeera and CCTV,” one document states. “But compared to the leading news channels on the distribution network, RT does not bear comparison with the others on the sizes of the audiences claimed—the others are watched by tens of millions of people a day, and RT by tens of thousands.”

The question of whether or not the Putin government is getting value for ruble with RT is likely the RIA Novosti team’s most damning finding. A graph shows that the network’s annual costs are more than double those of Al Jazeera, which made television rankings in 32 countries when looking at both its Arabic- and English-language varieties. Another competitor, Euronews, cost $9,200,000 to RT’s $168,300,000—and made ratings in 12 countries to RT’s one. The BBC cost $222 million, and made “almost all” TV ratings considered.

With additional reporting from Michael Weiss