Venezuelan Television: From Illusion to Fallacy

Venezuelan private TV has become one of the most vociferous and powerful opponents to the government of President Chavez. Why, given their economic dependence on the state, are the major networks fighting against the president so vehemently?

On December 16, 2002, the director of the private Venezuelan television channel RCTV, Marcel Granier, in a chance dramatic revelation, which, according to him, would serve to validate the coup-supporting actions of the private mass media, said, “the mass media and particularly RCTV, have always had a difficult relationship to power… We had problems with the two governments of President Perez, with the government of President Lusinchi, and with the government of President Herrera. The only government with which we did not have problems was the one of President Ramon Velasquez.”[1]

One can recognize in this tortured declaration that the Venezuelan media have not been, for a long time already, businesses oriented towards public service, as would correspond them given their nature. Rather, they are a sector with particular interests that motivate them in one direction: accumulate power in order to make more and more money and to reach, via this power, a level that would place them above all regulation that they see as being uncomfortable—that is, any regulation.

Nonetheless, this declaration is unconvincing to the audience to which he appealed back then with this simple formula for evading the indicators of being a coup plotter.

A country that for decades witnessed the embarrassing complicity between governors and mass media in relation to open and unabashed corruption, cannot accept as credible the version of the supposed enmity to which Marcel Granier alludes. If it is true that there have been confrontations between the state and the private mass media, in none of the many closings of media outlets that occurred during administrations previous to that of President Chavez, were these governments characterized as a “dictatorship” or as a “totalitarian regime,” as is happening during the current government. This is the only democratically elected government, in all of our history, which has not closed a single media outlet.

Not even Granier, when he was the object of a measure to close his program Primer Plano, on the order of the President of the time, Jaime Lusinchi (on May 5, 1986), could ever declare to the public the reasons for which he had been “taken off the air,” simply because it was unthinkable to even dare to polemicize (even politely) with the executive power. It could not be done because that which had to be protected was much more important than the injured honor of Granier. What was protected was the advertising investment of the state in the private mass media.

The False Role of Television

With increasing persistence it is said nowadays that Venezuela’s private mass media have simply come to fill the void that the political parties left following their fall at the end of the twentieth century. This is a claim that has no scientific basis because political spaces are eminently programmatic and can only be exercised institutionally by specific mass organizations that are essentially oriented towards service to the collectivity. Venezuelan television, just as all other mass media, has not submitted any political proposals which would go beyond the simple slogan of getting rid of Chavez. Also, the media have not reached their position based on social struggles of any kind.

Political parties are the base of a representative democracy, precisely because they emerge from the social contract in their pursuit of the common god and not from particular interests that are opposed to the common good, as is clearly the intention of the Venezuelan private mass media.

As good creators of illusion, the media, especially Venezuelan private television, have sold the idea that their role in society is that of “watch guards” of public administration when, in reality, they are the only institution of the country that has systematically and without interruption violated the moral and ethical fabric of society with their vile and degrading programming.

For a long time, in the face of the concern of academics of communications studies and of sociology, who have always warned of the pernicious effects that the violence and perversion of their programs could cause in society, Venezuelan television argued that the profile of their programming was determined by the tastes of the public and that it was due to this public that the TV stations made this terrible selection of “canned” programs. The massive movement of the public to cable TV, since the early nineties, in the search of quality programming, based in documentaries and in high quality series, gave the lie to this thesis. People wanted to see good television and not the rotten goods that the entrepreneurs of Venezuelan television bought at discount prices in the most nauseous television markets in the world.

Renny Ottolina was the only Venezuelan TV producer who was concerned with the quality of his programming. He was aggressively censored by the TV industry, until he was removed once and for all and joined the ranks of the enemies of Venezuelan TV. “I find Venezuelan TV guilty of ignoring the dignity of the inhabitants of our country. Parallel to this I find it guilty of laziness in its programming and of sins of omission with regard to the responsibility that its enormous power implies. Equally responsible for this situation: the viewers, the advertising agencies, and the TV stations,” said Ottolina in an article published in 1980.[2]

In the search for easy money, the businessmen of Venezuelan TV failed in making themselves competitive and in raising their productivity. As their broadcast signal is free of charge, they have not been able to compete against the expensive production that cable TV represents. Their business concept (in contrast to notions of marketing) is to sell poor quality at the highest price.

Who is the true enemy?

On December 15, 1999, President Hugo Chavez announced the sale of 23 airplanes that belonged to state-owned enterprises, in connection with a series of decisions that sought to reduce unnecessary costs and to dedicate this money to social investment.[3] These decisions of the incoming government included the sale of a large quantity of luxury cars that also were in the hands of the state (one of these was offered by President Chavez on national TV to Marcel Granier) and the elimination of advertising in the mass media.

Ever since this moment, the owners of the private television channels decided that from now on the race would be to find a president who would at any cost invest in private television. With the arrival of cable TV, the state, which previously was important, had become the most important client for the survival of their business.

Cable TV, as a small part of the phenomenon of globalization that today affects all economies of the world, has generated in Latin America a commotion within the industry that made the suppliers of TV programming victims of cable TV and made the television stations their natural enemy.

It is cable TV, by virtue of its excellent signal, but above all because of its excellent programming, that withdraws a large share of the market from the traditional broadcast channels and thus also a large share of their income. From the Rio Grande to the Cape of Horn, the closing of hundreds of advertising and of television programming production companies is nowadays determined by the profitability that the production of a single commercial represents for large transnational companies in the entire region, instead of the twenty or thirty advertisements they produced previously; one for every country in which they operate. The true enemy is thus not the government, but the disloyal advertisers who abandoned them and the cable technology that the stations irresponsibly underestimated.

What is there beyond the money?

Why then, given the difficulties to take on the technological advances that cable represents, has Venezuelan TV not smoothed the way to look for contacts that might reactivate the state’s advertising investment in television? And, instead of this, why have they concentrated so much on their confrontation with the president? It seems absurd that an industry that dedicates itself year after year to convincing national and international advertisers to buy advertising time in their channels, via a multi-million investment in spectacles of vaudeville and alcoholic drinks known as “pre-sales,” have not dedicated a single cent to attract state advertising investment, even though this would increasingly be its potentially best client.

The idea of media power that evolves into economic power is an idea that the average intelligent Venezuelan business person cannot resist. It is the dream of easy money made reality (based on the philosophy of frivolousness, which the national television industry sells), fed, in turn, by the idea of preeminence over the rest of society.

For this reason, in the face of the President’s recent initiative (on November 26, 2003), announced in the private television channels as a formula for dialogue and reconciliation, in the midst of the recall referendum petition drive, that the private TV channels decided to once again oppose themselves to common sense, denying the effort fundamentally because they believed that they were very close to taking power. This is how, simply due to ineptness, they lost one of the most important advertisers of Venezuelan TV, and the only one that still invested in them, the Tachira State Lottery, which was transferred to Televen (the smallest of the four major private TV networks), which did know how to deal with the issue intelligently.

To fight against the President has for this basically upstart and new rich sector an even more relevant connotation for them than money. Rather, they fantasize about parity, about equality, with regard to how they see themselves in relation to the President. It is easier and much more satisfying, in a regime of true freedom of expression such as Venezuela is now experiencing for the first time, to equalize oneself with the President via the exercise of media power, than to confront the inexorable globalization that is taking the medium to the brink of its extinction. This is even more true if the distortions of reality that they create allow them to perceive a hypothetical triumph over Chavez, one which they in reality have never even come close to.

Today they know that in their struggle against the advance of cable TV and even the Internet, they have everything to lose. This is where their anxiety to open new spaces comes from. The quest for power is an option that, once reached, would allow them to control the strings of the national economy and their access to new (and for them more comfortable and more secure) sources of income. Once they learn that to go against the overwhelming majority that is determined to transform Venezuela will always be more difficult than going against the grain of technological advance, perhaps then they will reorient their business strategy and the country will become calm once again.

Translated by Gregory Wilpert

[1] Marcel Granier, Primer Plano, Caracas, December 16, 2002

[2] Resumen, 1980, “Juicio a la Television Venezolana” (analitica.com/bitbiblioteca/renny_juiciotv.asp)

[3] “Chávez vende 23 aviones oficiales en campana por reducir la corrupción y los excesos del estado,” Noticias Yahoo, 16 de septiembre, 1999 (español.yahoo.com/noticias)