Chilean television during the Pinochet years: ‘There was no master plan on how to dominate the masses’

Journalists Marcelo Contreras and Rafael Valle release a book featuring 96 interviews, in which they refute myths about the industry during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship

Augusto Pinochet
Augusto Pinochet in Santiago, Chile, in 1983.Marcelo Montecino (FlickrVision)
Ana María Sanhueza

After the coup d’état of September 11, 1973, the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the general who spearheaded the assault on the Palacio de La Moneda that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende, a new period began for Televisión Nacional (today TVN), the Chilean public broadcaster. It was headed by several military officers who oversaw an industry they knew nothing about. Even Pinochet’s son-in-law at the time, Hernán García Barzelatto, was placed at the head of the channel.

The new television, which at the time also included three other university channels, among them Canal 13, underwent a transformation. The biggest intervention, however, came at the state-owned TVN, where censorship in the press department and the devotion to the new de facto authorities were deeply entrenched. According to the recently released book Mucha Tele: una historia coral de la TV en dictadura (Lots of TV: A chronicle of TV under dictatorship, in English), by journalists Rafael Valle and Marcelo Contreras, First Lady Lucía Hiriart de Pinochet had a reporter assigned to cover her everyday activities on 60 Minutos. Behind her back, the newscast was dubbed The Lucy Show.

Mucha tele
Marcelo Contreras and Rafael Valle, authors of 'Mucha tele: una historia coral de la TV en dictadura.'Sofía Yanjarí

“Pinochet’s Lucía Hiriart was in everything,” says journalist Bernardo de la Maza, one of the 96 people interviewed by Valle and Contreras, who at the time of the coup was working at TVN and left for Canal 13 in 1976. He recalls that on one occasion, during a microphone test, he said: “This is 60 Minutos, the most untruthful newscast on Chilean television,” a mocking but at the same time highly serious phrase that almost cost him his job. At that time, a newscaster working at the channel was a relative of Manuel Contreras, the director of the DINA, Pinochet’s secret police.

In addition, Pedro Carcuro, sports journalist and TVN host, says in the book: “One day, those of us working at the channel were asked to attend Pinochet’s birthday party on Calle Presidente Errázuriz, where the Army Commander-in-Chief’s house was located. We had to go.”

The vedette and the general

Valle and Contreras conducted the interviews between 2018 and 2023, and released the book last Thursday, in Santiago. The publication was presented by actress Malucha Pinto, who in the 1980s was one of the stars of Los Eguiguren, a comedy segment of Sábados Gigantes, the most watched program in Chile, on Canal 13, hosted by Mario Kretuzberger, also known as Don Francisco, one of the interviewees for the new book. The work was also presented by Santiago Pavlovic, a journalist who worked for TVN from before the coup until today, and Álvaro Díaz, one of the creators of 31 Minutos, who wrote the book’s prologue.

Díaz said during the presentation that the dictatorship’s television was “somewhere in the middle, between naivety and malice. And that middle ground is called banality.”

A scene that graphically illustrates this “middle” ground is narrated brilliantly in the book by Sergio Riesenberg, a well-known former director of TVN. Riesenberg was director of Sabor Latino, a program that began in 1982, hosted by Antonio Vodanovic, and which attracted dozens of vedettes to the television, among them the Spaniard Maripepa Nieto. Several interviewees, including Chilean singer Luis Jara and producer Tita Colodro, in addition to Riesenberg, recall that the former chief operative of the National Information Center (CNI), Álvaro Corbalán, currently incarcerated in Punta Peuco prison for human rights violations and who is said to have been Nieto’s partner, was sitting in the audience.

Mucha tele
A television set in Chile, in 2003, broadcasts images of the assault on La Moneda in 1973.Laurent PETERS (Getty Images)

Sergio Riesenberg says in the book: “To conquer Maripepa, Corbalán offered her the Festival de Viña [the largest music festival in Latin America], and I didn’t even know who he was. He approached me: ‘Do you know who I am?’ ‘I have no idea,’ I answered. ‘I’m the operational chief, or whatever…’ I replied: ‘She has nothing to do in Viña.’ He started to threaten me and I complied. I had a horrible time. The encounter with Corbalán was very tough.”

Diverse programming

Contreras and Valle tell EL PAÍS that Pinochet’s coup had immediate consequences for Chilean television. Unlike during the Popular Unity (left-wing political alliance), the state stopped financing the channels. “The neoliberalism enforced by the dictatorship determined that the television industry had to generate its own income through advertising, detaching itself from the state contribution… The advertisements became an integral part of the television grid,” they say in the book.

The authors of Mucha Tele belong to a generation that grew up with programs such as Festival de la Una, the humorous Jappening con Ja and Sábados Gigantes, and many others, particularly in the children’s genre. But, Contreras stresses that, when writing the book, “our motive was not to romanticize a period of television.” “There is a very basic fact, and that is that this television, in regard to its programs, was very diverse, which contrasts with the homogeneous television that exists today in Chile, restricted to the informative area, to the morning shows and to the channels that can make soap operas. The paradox is that under Pinochet there was more programming freedom, with the exception of the informative area.”

They point out that in this blend there were programs “for children; for young people, like we were in the 80s; for housewives, which later evolved into morning shows, and for the man who came home tired and watched Sabor Latino. There was a surprising diversity considering that we were under a dictatorship.”

“There was a lot of trial and error,” they explain. They even recall that cultural programs flourished on several channels, such as Creaciones, Teleduc, on Canal 13, and Tierra en que vivimos. They add that the period also had “some major feats. If there was a singer who was not in favor of the regime, they managed to get them on. Or in the drama areas, on TVN, the main villain was Luis Alarcón, a recognized left-wing actor. That shows that in this industry there were many cracks and many more gray areas as well.”

Mucha tele
The front cover of the book ‘Mucha tele.'Sofía Yanjarí

In this way, the journalists say that in their investigation they were debunking myths and prejudices. Among them was that the dictatorship “had a master plan on how to dominate the masses through the big screen. There was little of that, except in the news field, where there was a nasty control, especially in TVN. But in the rest of the areas, the military had no competence. They had no alternative but to trust, in inverted commas, those who were working at the channel.”

Valle adds: “There was no strategy that said something like ‘so that people don’t think, let’s invent Jappening with Ja.’ That wasn’t the case. The Jappening people were given a pretty unfair lineup. They were guys who met in a previous program, Dingolondango. Then they sat down next to a soda fountain to invent a program that also made fun of TV and they offered it to TVN. And TVN, after the success they had, threw them out.”

They were fired after an invitation to an elegant French restaurant in Santiago, which included a glass ashtray with the TVN logo as a gift for the cast. During dessert, says Gloria Benavides in the book, García Barzelatto said to them: “‘I want to thank you for everything you have given to humor in Chile, an iconic program, but this is it.’ It was like The Last Supper, but it was The Last Lunch. We couldn’t believe it.” Maitén Montenegro, a dancer, singer and comedian, like Benavides, adds: “It was like a Jappening sketch.”

On that “unfair lineup” which Valle refers to, Fernando Alarcón, who was also on the scene, commented on in the book: “Whenever I get asked: ‘Were you p circus?’ I say: ‘I studied journalism, they taught me that when you want to ask a question you have to be informed and know the background. Jappening was not Pinochet’s circus.’ In those days there was also La Madrastra [a successful TV series on Canal 13 in 1981], Sábados Gigantes, Teletón, Festival de Viña, Los bochincheros, Cachureos. Why does the Jappening have to be the only one [singled out]? There was everything! The actors, who always claim to be leftists, were there on the TV shows!”

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