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.