Since the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, the people of Ukraine have had access to a single source of television news — an all-day broadcast packed with footage of Ukrainian tanks blasting Russian positions, medics operating near the frontline and political leaders rallying support abroad.
The show, Telemarathon United News, has been a major tool of Ukraine’s information war, praised by the government officials who regularly appear on it for its role in countering Russian disinformation and maintaining morale.
“It’s a weapon,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said last January of the program, which is jointly produced and broadcast 24/7 by the country’s biggest television channels.
But after nearly two years of war, Ukrainians have grown weary of Telemarathon. What was once seen as a crucial tool for holding the country together is now increasingly derided as little more than a mouthpiece for the government.
Viewers have complained that the program often paints too rosy a picture of the war, hiding worrying developments on the frontline and the West’s eroding support for Ukraine — and ultimately failing to prepare citizens for a long war.
Over time, viewership and trust in Telemarathon have plummeted, which experts see as a sign of wider popular disenchantment with the government, as victory on the battlefield becomes elusive. Many viewers instead spend their time watching popular reality shows and entertainment programs.
“Everyone is fed up with this picture that says, ‘We’re winning, everyone likes us and gives us money,’” said Oksana Romaniuk, the head of the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information, a media monitoring organization. “It’s state propaganda.”
Launched shortly after Russia invaded, Telemarathon includes six networks representing around 60 percent of Ukraine’s total prewar audience. Each network is given multiple-hour slots to fill with news and commentary, which are then broadcast by all participants on their news channels.
The program was officially enacted by presidential decree and about 40 percent of its funding comes from the government, according to Oleksandr Bogutsky, the chief executive of StarLight Media, a major media group participating in the project.
But it remains unclear how much control the Ukrainian authorities have on Telemarathon’s editorial line.
Several media experts and journalists participating in the news show said that Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s culture and information minister until July, used to take part in meetings to coordinate news coverage. The ministry did not respond to several requests for comment.
Concerns about government influence were also raised after several channels run by political opponents of Mr. Zelensky were barred from joining Telemarathon.
At the beginning of the war, a majority of Ukrainians saw the project as vital. As Russian troops closed in on Ukrainian cities and villages, Telemarathon updated viewers about the fighting, advising them on where to find shelter and when to evacuate. “It was lifesaving content,” said Khrystyna Havryliuk, the head of news at Suspilne, Ukraine’s public broadcaster, which participates in Telemarathon.
The show also lifted people’s spirits at a critical time, broadcasting Mr. Zelensky’s inspirational messages into millions of households. “The mood it gave people, the spirit, the hope,” Ms. Romaniuk said. “It was really impressive.”
In March 2022, the program accounted for 40 percent of Ukraine’s total viewership, according to Svitlana Ostapa, the deputy chief editor of Detector Media, a Ukrainian media watchdog.
Over the months, Telemarathon settled into a well-oiled, round-the-clock newscast, with each channel filling its time slots with reports from the frontline, interviews with commanders and discussions with government officials.
That’s when ratings started to drop.
By the end of 2022, viewership of the news program had shrunk to 14 percent of the television audience, Ms. Ostapa said. Today, it is down to 10 percent.
Many viewers said that as the threat of a Russian takeover receded, the program’s patriotic overtones became increasingly exaggerated. “They portray events in Ukraine as if everything is fine, as if victory is just around the corner,” said Bohdan Chupryna, 20, on a recent evening in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
Like other Ukrainians, Mr. Chupryna said the coverage of Ukraine’s counteroffensive this summer was overly optimistic, giving the impression that the military would quickly push through enemy lines. The counteroffensive faced setbacks from the start and eventually mostly failed.
Ihor Kulias, a media expert monitoring Telemarathon for Detector Media, said that, for most of 2023, the show’s participants used language that emphasized “the effectiveness and skill of the Ukrainian forces,” while Russian forces were “described as being in a state of panic, experiencing significant losses and surrendering en masse.”
It was “a completely different reality” from the actual situation on the ground, Mr. Kulias said.
Olena Frolyak, a Ukrainian TV host who works for StarLight Media, denied that the program looked at the situation through “rose-colored glasses.” But she added that bombings and frontline developments are not reported until the government communicates about them. “We have to wait for the official position,” she said.
Mr. Kulias said some channels had adopted a form of “self-censorship” in their coverage. He added, however, that Suspilne is a rare example of a channel that has largely maintained an independent editorial line, inviting critics of Mr. Zelensky as guests and challenging official statements.
Still, the number of Ukrainians who say they trust Telemarathon has dropped sharply over time, from 69 percent May 2022 to 43 percent last month, according to a recent poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Another study showed that more than two-fifths of Ukrainians say they support ending the program.
Many critics say Telemarathon is now doing more harm than good.
“It has a dangerous side, it creates an optimistic view of the situation and then leads to disappointment,” said Yaroslav Yruchyshyn, the head of the Ukrainian parliament’s committee on freedom of speech, who publicly questioned the news broadcast’s effectiveness this month.
Mr. Yruchyshyn and media experts said they feared the program had blinded people to the fact that the war would drag on and require more sacrifice. Ukraine is currently struggling to recruit soldiers and there is mounting criticism that people living far from the front lines are starting to forget about the conflict.
“We need solid, balanced information that our society can analyze and from which people can make decisions,” Mr. Yruchyshyn said.
Another concern is that Telemarathon has transformed into a public relations operation for Mr. Zelensky, who remains Ukraine’s most trusted political figure but has seen his approval ratings decrease in recent months.
Figures compiled by Mr. Kulias show that members of Servant of the People, Mr. Zelensky’s party, accounted for more than 68 percent of the program’s political guests in 2023, with this proportion rising steadily throughout the year. Servant of the People controls half of the seats in Parliament.
“It’s like a unanimous point of view,” Andrii Khantil, a 41-year-old lawyer, said of Telemarathon on a recent evening near the Golden Gate, a reconstructed gateway that marked the entrance to Kyiv in medieval times. “It’s not really what we need. It’s not helpful.”
Mr. Bogutsky, the head of StarLight Media, said his channels were working to improve the diversity of guests. “The Telemarathon itself cannot shape” people’s views, he said, adding that social platforms such as Telegram — which most Ukrainians turn to for updates on the war from soldiers and military analysts — are much more influential.
As the war drags on, Ms. Romaniuk, from the Institute of Mass Information, said Telemarathon had to change to avoid mimicking what it was originally designed to counter: Russian propaganda.
“You don’t want to be like Russia,” Ms. Romaniuk said. “We should think about defending democracy in times of war.”