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Video: Piercing The Privacy Veil

3 minute read

The formula is simple: a celebrity, an interviewer and a video camera. That is all Estonian journalist Urmas Ott, 33, requires for his monthly 90-minute interview show, Television Acquaintance, which ranks fourth on the nation’s popularity index. Never mind that the back of his head is more familiar to audiences than his face or that he speaks Russian with a syncopated Estonian accent. Soviet viewers feel that they are eavesdropping on an intimate chat with such personalities as chess champion Anatoly Karpov, figure skater Irina Rodnina, painter Ilya Glazunov and pop singer Alla Pugacheva.

Ott jokes that his appeal for Russian viewers can be explained by the fact that “I’m not one of them and I’m not foreign.” He belongs, instead, to the Estonian school of TV and radio reporters, sharpened by competition with Western broadcasting from nearby Finland. Ott believes the art of interviewing was lost during the Brezhnev years, when prepared answers to prepared questions became the norm. With Television Acquaintance he has set about reviving the genre and giving it a personal spin. As he bluntly puts it, “An interview is not a speech.”

In a country where the private lives of public figures are veiled in mystery, Ott dares to ask questions that others only think about. What salaries do Soviet athletes earn? What sort of family life does an opera singer have? His guests may balk at the questions or try to evade them, but every honest answer is a small victory for openness. Says Ott: “I am sometimes accused of being too philistine in my approach. But I think such questions are exactly what viewers find interesting. Families, apartments and salaries are the only points where their lives touch and overlap with celebrities’.”

If Ott’s style of questioning were turned on himself, he would reply that he is a bachelor who shares an apartment with relatives in Tallinn, the Baltic port city that serves as Estonia’s capital. “If I were a Russian, the only type of life for me would be in Moscow,” he says. “But I am an Estonian, and the surroundings in Tallinn suit me.” As for his salary, he is paid the equivalent of $320 for each broadcast. Ott considers playing tennis a “sacred activity.” Not that he has much free time these days. A celebrity in his own right, he frequently travels around the country to answer questions from viewers at “creative evenings.” He also manages to make an occasional appearance as anchorman on the Estonian evening news.

Ott believes Soviet TV has responded too cautiously to the possibilities of glasnost. Sometimes he muses about expanding his spectrum of guests. Since he is an avid fan of classical music, he is eager to interview international artists like Leonard Bernstein and even emigre cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Nor would he rule out a broadcast with exiled novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He has also considered bringing on leading Soviet economists and politicians. Says he: “We now read the papers and watch TV in a kind of ecstasy, as if something extraordinary has happened. But what is so extraordinary about it? We are simply beginning to live a normal life.”

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