Russian TV Pulls Ukraine Leader’s Show Amid Off-Color Putin Joke

(Bloomberg) -- When Ukrainian voters swept comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the presidency after he played an accidental president in a hit TV series, Russian commentators could barely contain their amusement. But Russia, it seems, can’t take a joke about President Vladimir Putin.

An off-color joke about Putin was initially included when the TNT channel broadcast the first episode of Zelenskiy’s show, Servant of the People, to its viewers in Russia’s Far East, according to the BBC’s Russian service. When the same episode was screened in European Russia later on Wednesday, the offending sketch had been cut. Then the station stopped showing the series completely on its free-to-air channel after just three episodes.

TNT’s press service said Thursday the series was pulled as a “thought-out marketing move” to persuade viewers to sign up to see it on the channel’s online subscription service. The broadcaster, which is owned by Gazprom-Media, whose chairman is state-owned Gazprom’s chief executive officer, Alexey Miller, didn’t comment on the removal of the joke about Putin.

In the series, Zelenskiy played a schoolteacher thrust into the Ukrainian presidency after a video of him railing against corruption went viral. In the first episode, the novice politician is told to pick an expensive watch, with his guide explaining that Putin wears a Hublot timepiece. The name sets up a word-game joke recalling an obscenity Ukrainians used about Putin after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Art, Life

Life imitated art when Zelenskiy entered the presidential election contest in Ukraine, winning a landslide in April. TNT began airing the series two days after Zelenskiy and Putin held their first face-to-face meeting in Paris, as part of negotiations to try to end the eastern Ukrainian conflict that’s killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

“Servant of the People” is one of only a handful of Ukrainian shows to make it onto the Netflix global streaming service. Zelenskiy had faced criticism in Ukraine for allowing his show to be sold for broadcast in Russia.

The incident emerged as a popular Russian comedian, Dmitry Brekotkin, complained about political censorship on TV in a separate interview.

While “at first you could joke about the president, though carefully, now you can’t do anything,” Brekotkin told the E1.Ru news website in Yekaterinburg. “The word ‘Putin’ is forbidden.”

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any Kremlin involvement in the removal of the TV series, saying it doesn’t interfere in the editorial policies of Russian media. He also rejected suggestions of an increase in censorship in Russia.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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