The Times ran a piece on November 17 entitled “Children’s show is propaganda for Putin, say critics” that claimed a much loved Russian cartoon featuring a little girl called Masha, who is friends with a Bear, was a “soft propaganda” tool for the Putin regime. If the Times is right that spells trouble for the West, as the most popular Masha episode, when she tries to make porridge for herself, is the fifth most viewed video of all time on YouTube.
“Rubbish,” retorted Dmitry Loveyko, the CEO of the Animaccord Animation Studio, the maker of Masha and the Bear, in an exclusive interview with bne IntelliNews. “What do you mean by propaganda? Is Mr Bean propaganda pushing the British lifestyle overseas? There is a better argument to say that the Beatles were western propaganda used to fight the Soviet Union during the cold war with their jeans and the hippies.” The Beatles never actually played in Russia, but they have been credited with subverting communism before Paul McCartney finally performed for Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2003 on Red Square. The most that Masha has done is wear a border guard’s cap in one episode while she patrolled the garden fence to stop a rabbit from stealing her carrots.
Masha is famous for her exuberant japes, while the Bear tries to rein her in. The cartoon, launched in 2008 and first broadcast in 2009, has been a runaway success. And not just in Russia. Her name recognition amongst girls aged three to eight in Russia is just under 100%, but it is also in the high 90% in Brazil, Italy and Ukraine, and over 70% in France, the UK, Germany and Spain. Even in the US it is over 50%. Masha is well known and much loved by children worldwide.
“After the story broke we had comments from fans in all our countries on our YouTube channels in all 16 languages, saying it was a stupid story and that they love Masha!” says Loveyko.
Although the dialogue is in Russian it plays a small role compared to the action and allowed the cartoon to become the first Russian language production to garner more than 1bn views for a single episode – one that features Masha’s efforts to make herself some “kasha” or porridge. The YouTube channel has since gained 40.4 mn subscribers and a total of more than 40 bn views over 16 channels where what little dialogue there is has been translated into local languages.
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To justify the existence of the evil subplot behind the cartoon, the Times rolled out a “conflict expert,” one Professor Anthony Glees of Buckinghamshire University, who went on record saying that the series was emblematic of “aggressive Putinism.”
“Buckinghamshire? I had never heard of it before. We had to look it up. It has a little university that was set up in 1976,” says Loveyko.
The story was so far fetched that even the Russiaphobes distanced themselves from it, while the long-term Russian watchers roasted the Times for reacting.
“It’s always dangerous to predict that we’ve reached “peak” anything, because life will no doubt find a way to prove you wrong. But I truly with a story in today’s Times could turn out to be peak… I don’t even know quite what to call it… cliché Russophobia,” the widely quoted Russia expert and bne columnist Mark Galeotti said in his blog, before going on to slate the piece because: “It’s stupid; It devalues the real propaganda; It devalues us; and it helps Putin.”
The Times already got itself into hot water with another story on the conservative Henry Jackson Society, which claimed one in every two Russian expats in London is a Kremlin spy, to widespread derision.
The irony is Masha and the Bear should be welcomed, as it is emblematic of the modernisation of the economy. The whole of Eastern Europe has a deep and rich history in animation but the computer generated Masha is a hybrid between Russia’s artistic tradition and modern production methods, as well as the efficient commercialisation that comes with a success. Loveyko says that the production has never taken a penny of state money and the goal has been simply to create a loveable character and develop the brand in the same way as any other media success is developed in any other country.
“Masha is the creation of Oleg Kuzovkov, who is the character developer and script writer,” says Loveyko.
Kuzovkov began developing the show in 2008 and a year later the first pilot was run on the kids programming slot on the Rossiya state-owned channel, the second biggest channel in Russia. It was an immediate smash hit. The station picked up the series straight after the first two pilot episodes and the show has been running ever since. But the TV licensing makes up very little of the show’s income.
“It was an easy sell. There is a slot called “Goodnight Children” that has been running for decades. But the problem was Rossiya could not run foreign made cartoons. They have to run Russian-made or Soviet-era cartoons, but the Soviet ones are the wrong format: there is a six and half minute slot and the Soviet-era cartoons are longer,” says Loveyko.
Getting onto Russian TV proved to be easy. What was a surprise was the international popularity of the show, which has easily beaten international competitors like the UK’s Peppa Pig and its ilk. Russian TV is not a major source of revenue for the company; its value is for marketing and brand awareness, says Loveyko.
The bulk of the company’s money comes from merchandising — toys and the like — that makes up some 60% of the total revenues (which are not disclosed). Another 30% comes from YouTube adverts, which has become an industry in its own right. Only the remaining 10% comes from TV licensing and other shows. And Loveyko says they are constantly looking for new distribution: Masha and the Bear launched on Netflix two years ago and is already there with 12 channels in various languages – the first Russian content to be syndicated by Netflix.
Today Masha is one of the biggest kids channels in the world with 3.5bn YouTube views for the iconic Маша плюс каша episode (Lit: “Masha plus porridge” but translated into “Recipe for disaster”), a record breaker. The series as a whole has more than 27bn views on 13 channels. According to Wikipedia, “porridge” is the fifth most viewed video of all time.
The English language channel alone has 4.2mn subscribers (which are far more valuable than the basic “views”) while the home market Russian channel has 18mn subscribers. For comparison the Russian Disney channel has 1mn subscribers.
The company is continuing to roll out Masha in new markets. It was recently launched in India and while the show has many fans in China the company has not yet launched there.
“The US represents half the global market on its own, but it is also a much more competitive market. Masha has 50% image recognition there but it remains a young market. For comparison it took six years to develop the French market,” says Loveyko.
Usually once Masha has launched on local TV after a few years she has become famous enough to attract the local merchandiser’s attention and the company can earn additional income from selling toys and other merchandising.
Going forward the global deployment of the Masha franchise is not complete but it is well underway. The company is looking for new opportunities and one possibility is to produce a feature length movie. However, Loveyko would also like to look at tie-ups with other brands in his space.
In 2016 the shareholders sold 25% stake to UFG Asset management, Russia’s biggest private equity firm, which remains a minority stakeholder.