Five years ago, Chávez snatched the remote

Five years ago, I was finishing college in Maracaibo. The night of May 27th, 2007 was a tense one, and everybody was glued to their TV sets close to midnight, something unusual for a Sunday night.

It wasn’t a sport event or an awards ceremony. It was to witness the end of an era. Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), the second oldest TV broadcaster in Venezuela, was about to cease broadcasts over the public airwaves.

In the last days of December 2006, while everybody was on holiday mode, Hugo Cháve decided to spend some of the political capital from his landslide re-election victory: He announced that RCTV’s broadcasting licence was close to expire and CONATEL (the Venezuelan communications authority) would not renew it. Behind the legal jargon, the meaning was simple: RCTV had its days numbered, and Chávez would have a personal trophy.

It isn’t worth discussing the legal and technical arguments involved in this case, because there are none. After the events of 2002 and 2003, Chavez wanted control over those he called “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse”, the four major private television stations in the country: Venevision, Televen, Globovision and RCTV. The first two quickly toned down their rhetoric; Globo didn’t have a mass audience was banished to the Cable wilds in most of the country. Because of its history, national presence, dominance in the ratings and unwillingness to cut a deal, RCTV quickly became a target.

The last minutes of RCTV were filled with sadness. In the main studio, all the workers gathered and insisted that they would return to air sooner rather than later. The national anthem came on air, but this time sang by actors, technicians, journalists and employees.

Then, the image went black for a moment. It was fait accompli. RCTV was gone.

The image of the new government channel TVes appeared, but it took more than 20 minutes to start their broadcast, never a good sign.

To this day, this channel which was born of improvisation (using the RCTV equipment, thanks to a swift Supreme Court decision) has not even come close to reaching its predecesor’s success. Even Chavez recognized its failure a short time after it went on air.

RCTV came back in July 2007 as a cable-only channel (RCTV International). But its programming was severly limited by constant changes to the rules. On January 24th, 2010 RCTV International was shut down again after cable and satellite TV providers were ordered by CONATEL, then supervised by Diosdado Cabello.

Chavez’s gamble backfired politically in the short term: The rise of the student movement as a reaction to RCTV’s closing was unexpected and the popular backlash to the shutdown was a important factor for the electoral defeat of the Consititutional Reform proposal the following December.

However, the gamble worked in the communicational terrain. That day was the dawn of the “communicational hegemony” that Chavez wanted to implement for quite some time.

Unless you have access to cable or satelite TV, you can hardly find alternative, critical programming in Venezuela. The free-to-air TV landscape is completely free of interesting, challenging content. It wasn’t much better with RCTV on the air, but something has been missing: competition. There’s no motivation to offer good programs, where else is the audience going to turn?

The remaining private channels are happy to share the advertising take, so they don’t rock the boat. Matter of fact, Venevision (ratings leader by default) has proved that it will do anything it takes to keep the government happy and they have been rewarded handsomely for it, too.

Five years later, communicational hegemony has had a terrible, chilling effect on our public sphere. Private station newscasts are now mostly “infotainment” (ad nauseam reports on celebrities, domestic and foreign). As for opinion programs, just the fact that the most prominent of the few that can be found in private media is hosted by a former Vice-President/Foreign Minister/Defense Minister says it all.

Free-to-air TV is dying slowly in Venezuela. By the time the digital switch-over arrives, the state of commercial broadcasting will be in shambles. Public media is busy, creating conflict out of nowhere and playing the victim, but they’re on the march, promoting their propaganda.

RCTV wasn’t the only thing shut down five years ago. Viewers’ right to a balanced media landscape was taken away, too. Hugo Chávez snatched the remote control from them and now he’s choosing instead, with no intention to stop in the near future.

45 thoughts on “Five years ago, Chávez snatched the remote

    • Accurate indeed. Even those of us who almost never watched RCTV felt we had been deprived of our right to choose. Indeed, as I understand, few of the students that led the subsequent protests were regular viewers.
      Our right to choose is still being circumscribed, not only directly by the government that shuts down local TV stations and radio networks at will, but by the self-censorship of the survivors, one by one. Venevisión, Televen and more recently Union Radio are just the most prominent cases of surrender to the drive for communicational hegemony.
      The way things are going, we’ll get more complete information about Venezuela through Colombian and other international media.

  1. I miss Archivo Criminal and its theme man… I don’t care a bit about venezuelan TV, it’s all crap to me. But that doesn’t excuse closing down a channel. One i grew up with,as many did.

    Great report Geha,great one.

  2. Great post… These aspects were missing from last night’s Globovisión’s documentary on the crackdown on RCTV: its economic and broadcasting consequences, evidently fortought by the government.

    Yet, all in all, TVes is chavismo’s best network: it is less abrasive than VTV, less amateurish than Avila (or ANTV), less ideological than ViVe, and more general than Telesur. Not that I care for it, although it sometimes reminds me of the former Televisora Nacional.

    As a technical matter, Gustavo: could the new government return RCTV and also keep TVes as a kind of PBS?

    • TVes carries the programming the other state channels don’t. Entertainment, sports, movies, etc. After VTV became the government’s news channel to counter Globovision, there was a void and TVes kinda filled it.

      Could RCTV come back? Depends. The whole legal process (or lack of there of) is filled with irregularities, so it could be declared void. But is easier said that done.

      The current system of state media is designed to accomplish the communicational hegemony and it doesn’t fit democratic standards. Personally, I think it has to go and be replaced with a new smaller, efficient structure. But this change must come as part of an overall reform of the Venezuelan media landscape.

      A true public service broadcasting could be an important tool for a nation, if it’s done right. My college thesis was about PSB and the possibility to implement it here, so I love this subject. I would like to know what Henrique Capriles will do about it if he wins in October.

      • I don’t think a government should own a media outlet. They should not even have the power to decide to do so. If it needs to publish or broadcast something it should do so through the privately owned media outlets. If it decides there should be certain programs or kinds of programming in the media it should do so through policy making. In general, politicians are for creating policy, they should stick to what their career is about.

  3. I am only partially with you, Gustavo.
    Agreed, it should not have happened, but…
    “Viewers’ right to a balanced media landscape was taken away, too.”

    Did we ever really had that right? If so, it never was fulfilled. And axing RCTV does not make the right go away, if we had it to begin with. But, as a viewer fo TV for a loong time, until I gave up completely, Venezuelan TV has had almost zero critical content of something other than politics. One of the reasons Venezuelans were ripe for the harvest by Chávez or any other demagogue was the banality, shallowness of our public discourse.

    • It’s not just Venezuelan TV, but Latin American TV in general share that lack of quality, in part because the commercial model (shared by the U.S.) won over the public service element (more Europe-oriented). It’s all about giving people what they want and not challenge them in any way.

      • Indeed.
        And I think that a key to the recovery and development of Venezuela is indeed a better management of media. Not only a good public TV, but making sure that the broadcasting of commercial media follows certain guidelines: You can speak about anything, Resorte law would be withdrawn, but, in exchange for the ability to broadcast, you need to contribute with time for a better society. How?

        For every minute of fashion/celebrity content, you need to broadcast 2 minutes of science and tech. I do not care if it’s pictures of the Hubble, BBC documentaries, F1 shows focused on the engines, sports medicine, whatever. Just nail the message: Science is important, tech is important. For every minute devoted to tarotists, witches, astrologists, 2 min of promotion of critical thinking. Unless the powers of the “gifted” are properly certified, it should have a ribbon saying “this is entertainment, not for real, the individuals depicted here have no powers”

        Keeping the independently produced shows is a good idea, but it needs to be improved.

        I know some people won’t like this, but, it’s not because I am a scientist and atheist. When I founded my skeptical NGO I did it because I felt there was nobody promoting the message, and that still seems to be the case.

        Think, which country has been able to develop without science and tech in the last century? How magical/uncritical thinking contributes to our crises? If witches and sorcery really worked Sorte alone should be doing better than Luxembourg.
        We need to promote more these subjects, as part of a national strategy of development. Fixing the economy is necessary but not sufficient. The media has a fundamental role in shaping our society, we need their collaboration for getting out of this mess, and doing PSA is not enough, even if it is necessary.

        It’s never going to happen, it is not a priority for anybody, but I still will repeat it once more.

        • The PNI idea is not bad but the execution has been horrible. They’re awarding mediocrity, not creativity. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.

  4. Great post! It was a weird (in the way of scary) moment when the RCTV signal went off-air…

    It puzzles me somehow, though, how everyone in the oppo field is openly saying that, once HCR wins, RCTV will get back its broadcasting rights. Taking aside the equipments issue (they should get back their equipment, no doubt about it), why is RCTV entitled to a broadcasting license?

    • RCTV has insisted that the licence didn’t expire at 2007, but at a later date. The whole legal operation is really questionable, because there was no due process involved.

      The equipment of RCTV was confiscated, no question about that. The decision of the TSJ went way beyond the argument it was brought, but that was the point. Then Communication Minister (the late William Lara, I think), said TVes has its own equipment in place but it wasn’t true. It took an annonymous group to ask for a vague constitutional protection to the court and done, TVes could launch (still they took 20 minutes after RCTV ceased broacasting) thanks to the order that gave them the RCTV-owned technical infrastrucutre without any financial reparation.

      A RCTV no solo la cerraron, sino que la expropiaron a la vez. #HechoEnSocialismo

    • I sort of agree with lgg.

      Marcel Granier’s martyr shtick is insufferable. Here’s a guy who never atoned for his aggressive undermining of the democratic regime in the late 80s/early 90s. A guy who’s never issued a mea culpa for turning his network into a mockery of journalistic ethics in the early 2000s. A guy who seems intimately convinced that the ultimate test of democratic legitimacy is whether a government licks his butt day in and day out.

      Ugh!

      His enormous ego, his determination to use RCTV as a propaganda outlet have all been conveniently forgotten due to the brutality with which the government shut him down.

      I think the next government should get serious about public interest broadcasting, with the emphasis on public.

      • Incidentally, I get it that Basterds have rights too, and none of Granier’s faults excuse the government for trampling over his rights. For the record.

        • Your solution is *another* public TV station? What, don’t we have enough of those?

          I’m sorry, the only solution is for RCTV to come back in its old form, or to auction off the licensing right to some other *private* broadcaster. Enough of these public sinkholes!

          • I’m not saying that. I’m saying whether you’re public or private, if you’re using the public spectrum, you should have public interest broadcasting responsibilities.

            • Public spectrum is a scarce resource. There are not unlimited slots for broadcasting. If you have an oligopoly from the state there needs to be regulation, cannot be a laissez faire. If it comes to laissez faire, then stop enforcing the oligopoly and leave everybody broadcast in any frequency they want.

              • Obviously, that is why I proposed auctioning the spectrum, as is done everywhere except Cuba and North Korea (and Venezuela). But Quico was proposing a public TV station, or at least I thought he was.

              • What I meant is that you should be able to impose minimum public service standards on anyone who uses the public spectrum to license. That happens everywhere: you wouldn’t allow pornography on free-to-air TV, of course, nor incitement. Why? Because these broadcasts are non-excludable, they reach everyone, into everyone’s house.

                I think that needs to be pushed further. This isn’t some commie aberration. In the U.S. you used to have the Fairness Doctrine. In France and the U.K. you have strict standards regarding equal-time to different candidates at election time. In Australia, they impose educational programming quotas on free-to-air TV. Different countries have different formulas, but all recognize the country has a legitimate interest in having TV play a positive role in creating a democratic public sphere. You can write those rules right into the terms of the auction, if you want!

                (Bien sur, this can co-exist with a free-for-all on the internet, in newspapers and on pay TV…that’s different.)

                But we must never again allow a station like Venevision get away with the travesty of journalism it inflicts on us night after night.

      • Wow, Quico.

        I was going to reply something like this, but felt it’d be too much into the rabid leftwinger zone. I am really glad it is not and that you think similar thoughts.

      • You have a good point there, Quico. I completely agree.

        Public Service Broadcasting is about putting public interest first.

      • I think that the whole RCTV issue was a humongous miscalculation from Granier & Co. They played and got burned.

        Pretty much like they did during CAP II (as narrated in La Rebelión de los Náufragos) but back then they got what they were asking for. King-making at its best (or worst).

    • Think of that hashtag RCTV is using on Twitter now: #nosvemosendemocracia. Quiarrechos son, nojoda! So now the definition of having returned to democracy is that RCTV is back! No me jodas vale…

      • You should know better by now. That slogan is just a publicity stunt, plain and simple. And the best of all, for free. It has nothing to do with the political stability of Venezuela.

        Remember, Madonna never really wanted to make out with a black saint. She just wanted to sell records.

    • Because it was taken away by a bully… RCTV is entitled at least to a fair chance at getting back a license or applying for a new one.

      I watched Vale TV usually, and at times watched Avila TV.

      The question should be rather, why isn’t everyone else who is able to broadcast able to get a broadcasting license? If somebody has a problem with someone else’s broadcasting, they should always have the opportunity to set up, or at least support alternatives.

      • Agree, RCTV must have the right to bid for a license. Like everyone else. And the government should auction publicly the airwaves and set clear rules and the like.

        What really irks me is the sense of entitlement from RCTV. We OWN the license! You STOLE my license! What an injustice! The only way to right that is that we get our license back, no money owned and no strings attached!

        Maybe someone should tell Granier & Co that the airwaves are owned by the Venezuelan State and not some individual who think s/he has a divine right to them.

        • You don’t own our driving license or other papers that allow you to drive. But if some bully bureaucrat took it away or refused to renew because you are “dangerous”, or your car is a “jalopy”, or you are a “drunk driver” (and you only had parking tickets and such, nothing warranting a court hearing), and then impounded your car, and allowed somebody else to loot some parts for their own use… Maybe you could consider yourself wronged on several counts, including civil rights.

          Not that I agree that RCTV did only good things, only that they were bullied.

  5. Good riddance to bad rubbish is the phrase that came to mind when RCTV went off the public airwaves in 2007. Of course there was no due process when it concerned renewing or not renewing the RCTV public broadcast license. It is a decision by Conatel (ie the government de turno) and that’s all. It is not a legal or “due” process and is not negotiable. It’s like law, guys, so like it or leave it.

    Before the AN passed the Ley RESORTE which limited advertising to 15 minutes in any one hour it was impossible to watch a movie on RCTV. It was the commercials interspersed with clips of some plot. It was terrible. Novelas all the time – all designed to dumb down the population more than it already has been. I’m just so pleased that my kids do not have access to the heinous, idiotic and degrading content that characterized RCTV.

    Gustavo’s attempt to prove that the state media has a monopoly is just pure manipulation and without foundation. There are around 70 TV stations in Venezuela – most of them regional broadcasters – and hardly any of them support the government. In fact, the opposition still has the vast majority of private media on its side – around 85% – including radio, TV and printed media – without even mentioning the internet.

    So Gustavo is correct – there is no media balance in Venezuela. It is still in favor of the opposition and by a long way.

    In July 2007 RCTV came back on cable as RCTV International but in contrast to Venevisión International (Venevisión+) which had been left alone since its programs were almost all mad outside Venezuela meaning that it was truly international – RCTV International made most of its programs in Venezuela. Granier would not back down on this issue since if he had and RCTV were classified as a Venezuelan broadcaster, he would have been obliged to run the cadenas and state advertising. This was the sticking point and when it came to a showdown with Granier refusing to budge, Diosdado pulled the plug on the cable existence of RCTV International. You can see RCTV International in Colombia and Miami so in effect it has never been “CLOSED” as VTV was during the coup and Catia TV when it was kicked out of the Hospital Lidice by Peña’s thugs and was off the air for seven months.

    For once I have to agree with Quico on his profile of Granier. I could not have written it better myself.

    After what happened during the coup in 2002 when the flames were fanned by the private media – especially RCTV, Globo, Venevision. Televen and CMT – all these channels should have been summarily closed by the government and the owners and participating journalists tried for high treason. They would not have even made it to trial in the USA. But, hey, that is another blog post.

    • Oh, right. Novelas all the time. It was disgusting. I am so glad that the govt brought TVES and noow they have… South Korean novelas.

      #EpicFacepalm

      • Guido – have you no other comment to make on the points I so carefully put together for your enlightenment?

        In any case, thanks for expressing your point of view.

        • Since I mostly agree with you concerning Catia TV, since I am not commenting in any hypothetical re-issues of 2002 in the US, and since it’s pure and unadulterated bullshit that govt is outgunned concerning media, I do have very little to say. And the fact that they have soap operas, South Korean or from wherever, shows that what the govt does is a repetition from the old time while they criticize the old times loudly. If you don’t like that, argue with TVES, not with me.

        • Wow that’s a really revolutionary phrase! “It’s the law, like it or leave it!” It’s amazing how much the far Left resembles the far Right once they get in power. And the line about how it’s so great your kids aren’t exposed to this rubbish on TV? What are you, an overly conservative middle aged housewife?

          • What do you want – everything done arbitrarily or on the basis of a whim or based on legislation? You sound too dumb to understand what transculturization is. As usual – no capabality of debating – just snide remarks and covert insults. That’s why you love Capriles and Granier – their stupidity matches yours.

            • You damn well know the difference between a country with laws and strong institutions and utilizing laws for arbitrary whims.

            • And I’m quite familiar with the concept of ‘transculturalization’, I suppose according to you we’re all just under the spell of the gringos and we’ve all been brainwashed. However, that still doesn’t justify the arbitrary shutdown of RCTV five years ago, which was about as far from a legal action as you can get. But then again up is down, water is wet and this is Venezuela.

    • Still not one shred of an argument for the “non-renewal” (after a license had been duly applied for and received no response, without any kind of judicial process) and subsequent confiscation of equipment. Just propaganda.

    • Regarding “the law” fair enough, Arturo, but answer me this:

      Does that mean that the equipment gets confiscated and not paid for? I get that CONATEL can approve or not a concession, but I do not think that any law on the books allows for equipment theft.

  6. Just to end this thread on what I for one regard as a step in the right direction against arbitrary measures, I note that the Alcaldia Mayor has been ordered to pay BS.F: 500,000 in “moral damages to Catia TV for closing it down in June 2003. 8 years almost to the day to get justice for this channel. Here is the link: http://www.aporrea.org/medios/n206493.html

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