For almost a decade, they were the best-known investigative journalists on Russian television, mocking the Kremlin, exposing corruption scandals and revealing the bloodiest excesses of the Chechnya war.
The Kremlin hounded them, seized control of their national network and forced them to move to a smaller channel. And then yesterday, it finally happened: They were evicted completely from Russian television and replaced by a bland sports channel that confined itself to tennis, chess and a rerun of a five-year-old boxing match.
The demise of Russia's last independent national channel, TV-6, left the Kremlin in complete control of all the country's major television networks for the first time since the Soviet era.
The frequency occupied by TV-6 went blank at midnight Monday. An announcer was cut off in mid-sentence and replaced by a test pattern.
When Muscovites woke up yesterday, they discovered that the popular channel, rated third in the capital and feeding news to 150 other cities, had been mysteriously replaced by a sports network.
By coincidence, President Vladimir Putin had expressed his thoughts on the subject just a few days earlier. What Russia really needs, he said, is a sports channel.
TV-6 was led by a team of muckraking journalists, headed by anchorman Yevgeny Kiselyov, who had criticized the Kremlin for years from their posts at NTV, Russia's first private television network.
A state-owned gas monopoly gained control of NTV last year, forcing Mr. Kiselyov and his team to flee to the temporary safety of TV-6, a much smaller channel.
Earlier this month, after a stunningly swift series of court decisions, a Russian court issued a final liquidation order against TV-6 on the grounds that its liabilities were greater than its assets.
The explanation was widely ridiculed, since almost all of Russia's television channels are in a similar situation.
"It looks like some kind of television coup," Mr. Kiselyov said. "The authorities showed that their single goal is to gag us."
The Kremlin's campaign against the independent television channels was linked, in part, to its feud with the controversial business tycoons who owned them. It alleged that Vladimir Gusinsky, founder of NTV, and Boris Berezovsky, majority owner of TV-6, had exploited their media outlets to promote their political and business interests.
Both tycoons have openly opposed the Kremlin in recent years, and some analysts said Mr. Putin wanted to teach them a lesson. Both tycoons were forced into exile by criminal prosecutions after Mr. Putin became president.
"Putin is fighting with Berezovsky, but he is victimizing the viewers and the journalists," Boris Nemtsov, leader of a liberal parliamentary faction, said.
Western governments, including the United States and Germany, have protested the shutdown of TV-6 and NTV.
To defuse criticism that it is suppressing media freedom, the Kremlin has repeatedly promised that independent owners will be allowed to bid for the NTV and TV-6 licences.
So far, however, the promise has been unfulfilled, and many analysts are skeptical of it.
Russian Press Minister Mikhail Lesin had even hinted that Mr. Kiselyov and his team could remain on the air at TV-6 and then bid for a new licence, as long as Mr. Berezovsky was excluded. Mr. Kiselyov accepted the offer, then changed his mind.
A few hours after he tried to retract his acceptance, the authorities pulled the plug on TV-6.