Ten years ago, Ukrainian journalist Roman Vintoniv filmed a satirical TV report from the Ukrainian parliament, trolling unwitting MPs by posing as Canadian-Ukrainian diaspora journalist Michael Shchur. Over the next decade, Vintoniv and his team built the biggest satirical news media in Ukraine.  

Today, Toronto TV has almost 600,000 subscribers on YouTube, with its regular video streams and weekly satirical news digests routinely gathering 200,000 or 300,000 views. The organisation also has a substantial audience on other social platforms. Over the years, its weekly news program was broadcast by several major Ukrainian TV channels.

When Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, the Ukrainian media sector faced a set of unprecedented challenges – from trying to establish personal safety and remain operational to weathering the crumbling ad market. Toronto TV faced an additional challenge – Vintoniv, the show’s lead anchor and most recognised face, left to serve in the army immediately after the war started.

However, Toronto TV continued operating – and became an even more important voice during the war, with a rapidly growing audience.  

Toronto TV’s team relocated from the embattled capital city of Kyiv to Western Ukraine. Today, it serves several functions – both informing people about “serious” news (Toronto TV’s Telegram channel effectively became a one-man news media, reaching on average 70,000 people with each post) and providing comic relief for the audience in challenging times.

The Fix looked at the role Toronto TV is playing during the war, its audience growth and financial position, and how the absence of the show’s most famous anchor has impacted the project’s work. The article is partly based on the interview with Maksym Shcherbyna, Toronto TV’s co-anchor and editor

Informing the audience – and providing psychological support

Toronto TV’s main product is its weekly satirical news digest that comes out on Sunday. It covers some of the most significant news stories of the week, as well as other interesting or overlooked news stories.

Toronto TV’s aim is both to inform and entertain the audience. Shcherbyna says they often are trying to explain complex ideas with simple words – for example, they once used ballet to demonstrate the OSCE monitoring mission in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

(The organisation doesn’t have roots in Toronto, the name comes from Vintoniv’s joking impersonation of a Canadian-Ukrainian diaspora reporter. Vintoniv still retains the pseudonym Michael Shchur within Toronto TV, though he dropped his fake Canadian Ukrainian accent a while ago).

When the war started, the team initially paused publishing of scripted weekly digests and focused on regular YouTube live streams – covering latest news, speaking with experts, and communicating with the audience. Taking place six days a week at first, the streams have had a goal of both informing the viewers and providing psychological support, helping people get distracted from the horrors of the war, Maksym Shcherbyna says. They also help raise funds for volunteer initiatives.

Within a few weeks, the team resumed weekly news digests and reduced the cadence of live streams to once a week. Among other topics, the latest Sunday digest covers the arrest of pro-Russian oligarch Victor Medvedchuk in Ukraine and his wife’s appeals to free him; how Ukraine’s UN Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya is trolling his Russian counterpart; and Russia’s efforts to install its authorities in newly occupied Ukrainian cities.

Toronto TV’s co-anchors Oleksandra Honar and Maksym Shcherbyna are hosting a live stream on the eighth day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine (screenshot: Toronto TV’s YouTube channel)

Apart from weekly digests and live streams, Toronto TV publishes video blogs by its co-anchors. Anatolii Ostapenko’s 6-minute story on how killed Russian soldiers’ relatives are reacting to their deaths, based on monitoring Russian social network VK, broke the record as the most popular YouTube video in Toronto TV’s history with 3,8 million views up to date. 

Toronto TV also has a sizable audience on Telegram – over 114,000 subscribers, with an average reach of over 71,000 views per post. When the invasion started, their Telegram channel evolved from a supporting platform for main video products to a standalone news outlet covering the war.

Maksym Shcherbyna says Toronto TV’s Telegram became “a full-fledged, separate news media” thanks to one person – creative producer Yevhen Samoilenko, who devoted himself to the Telegram channel. Telegram’s audience grew by almost four times since the war started. That’s in line with other Ukrainian media, such as Ukrainska Pravda or LIGA.net – the interest in news among Ukrainians skyrocketed.

At the same time, Toronto TV’s audience on YouTube has also shown record growth. Shcherbyna notes that 75,000 new people subscribed to the YouTube channel in the first 1.5 months of the war; the videos received 14 million views during this time. Before the war, Toronto TV would attract only 10,000 new people and 4 million views within the same time period.

Retaining, and rebuilding, the team during the war

Toronto TV was launched in 2012, almost ten years ago, and dozens of people have worked on the project since then. Most “fathers of the project”, Shcherbyna says, aren’t involved in its day-to-day work now.

Three lead co-anchors today are Shcherbyna himself, Oleksandra Hontar and Anatolii Ostapenko. They represent the so-called “new generation” – all of them joined the organisation in or after 2017. 

The whole team now includes up to 15 people, including writers, camera operators, editors, and sound designers. It’s a reduction from before the war, and the team had to be partially rebuilt – some people switched to volunteer activity and are appearing on the show only occasionally (such as Yaroslava Kravchenko, another co-anchor before the war), while some others went on to serve in the army (most notably Roman Vintoniv). 

New people joined to fill the needs. However, team members have to be multi-functional, Shcherbyna says – “you can’t be only an editor or only a writer, you also have to pose behind a camera, look for topics, write briefs.”

When the war started, Toronto TV’s studio had to be relocated from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in Western Ukraine. Shcherbyna thinks the headquarters will remain there in the near future – although Kyiv is now returning to normal life, with many people and institutions coming back as the main battles are taking place in Eastern Ukraine, Toronto TV’s studio in Kyiv no longer exists, it has been fully evacuated. 

To rebuild the team, Toronto TV had to rely on volunteer work in the first weeks of the war, Shcherbyna says. Now that financing has been secured, however, they are able to offer financial compensation. 

Shcherbyna says Toronto TV doesn’t have one senior leader who has authority over everyone else. Important decisions are now taken by a group of three people – himself, Hontar and Ostapenko. They have taken up day-to-day management since the start of the war. Before, the leadership group consisted of Roman Vintoniv, Yevhen Samoilenko, as well as producers Andrii Kondratenko and Viacheslav Rushnyk.

While Vintoniv is not hosting the show now, he does play a role in Toronto TV’s work. The team is in contact with him, and he sometimes joins the streams or sends pre-recorded messages. Vintoniv’s absence as an anchor hasn’t had a noticeable negative impact on the interest in the show – rather, as noted above, the audience has grown significantly in the recent two months.

Toronto TV’s team hosting an offline event in Ivano-Frankivsk in April 2022 – left to right Maksym Shcherbyna, Oleksandra Hontar, Anatolii Ostapenko, and Serhii Chyrkov; a snapshot from Roman Vintoniv’s pre-recorded message can be seen on the background. It was Toronto TV’s first and so far the only offline event. According to Shcherbyna, thanks to the event the team raised almost $10,000 for inhabitants of the areas that suffered from the war. (Photo: Milana Sribniak).

Financing – audience revenue and grant funding 

Toronto TV has been among the most successful media ventures in Ukraine in terms of attracting audience revenue – on Patreon, over 1,800 patrons committed more than $10,000 monthly. 

The war isn’t exactly a good time for growing audience revenue – millions of people in Ukraine lost their jobs, and those with financial means tend to focus on more urgent needs like funding the war effort and humanitarian needs. Still, Toronto TV’s audience is loyal. Although the team isn’t now producing exclusive content for patrons (it experimented with this approach before the war), the support hasn’t decreased since the war started, it even slightly increased.

Toronto TV’s Patreon account as of April 19th – 1,824 patrons committing 10,205 USD per month (screenshot: patreon.com)

However, audience revenue covers a minority of Toronto TV’s expenses. “The lion’s share” of the organisation’s budget during the war comes from international donors, according to Shcherbyna. Toronto TV is supported by Internews, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and Pact. A Czech organisation, whose name Shcherbyna wouldn’t disclose, provided financial support for developing Toronto TV’s English-language Twitter account.

Before the war, Toronto TV also made money on advertising, it was one of the main sources of income. Shcherbyna says Toronto TV had built up a financial reserve thanks to advertising before the war, which was essential to making it in the tumultuous first weeks of the armed conflict.

Today, though, ads are hardly a meaningful source of money for most Ukrainian media. In Toronto TV’s latest weekly video digest, what could be a paid ad integration a few months ago is an appeal to donate to Come Back Alive, Ukraine’s largest NGO helping the army.

Photo from tv.suspilne.media