Four years after it pulled the plug on live transmissions of bullfights, state television has decided definitively that in the interest of protecting the nation's children from images of cruelty to animals, the corrida can no longer be screened during prime time, and will instead be limited to a half-hour round-up on Saturday mornings.
The move is yet another mortal blow to what many consider a key part of Spain's cultural heritage: in 2004, Barcelona declared itself "an anti-bullfighting city," and in 2007, an animal-protection law prohibiting new bullrings went into effect throughout the entire northeastern region of Catalonia. To prevent future generations from embracing the sport, the law also made bullfights R-rated: children under 14 can no longer attend bullfights. Aficionados say that with each move against bullfighting, the chance that new generations will embrace this most Spanish of spectacles is reduced, and that it will soon die out.
The popularity of bullfighting crosses class, regional and political lines
A 2007 law makes bullfights R-rated: kids under 14 can no longer attend
Bullfights remain core events of municipal and religious holidays
Anti-broadcast torero: "If people want to see us, then let them pay"
The popularity of bullfighting, it has to be said, cuts across class, regional and political lines, and although the measures against it have taken place under the current Socialist Party's watch, there are many in the government and the opposition, starting with the prime minister, who appear to be sitting on the fence over the issue.
Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba wants to pass responsibility for the future of bullfighting to the Culture Ministry, yet in October the Senate rejected by two votes - thanks to the Socialist Party - an opposition Popular Party (PP) proposal to make bullfighting officially of national cultural interest; PP administrations in Madrid, Valencia and Murcia have already done so. Meanwhile, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said earlier in the month that he did not support Catalonia's ban on bullfighting.
The regional governments of Castilla-La Mancha, Andalusia, Aragon, and Extremadura, all long-standing fiefdoms of the Socialist Party, are staunch supporters of bullfighting, and have invested millions of taxpayers' euros to broadcast corridas live on radio and television, arguing that bullfights remain core events of municipal and religious holidays.
The Popular Party, which has made a very visible and vocal defense of bullfighting, has just brought a case before the Constitutional Court arguing that Catalonia's ban is illegal. But it then turns out that the party's four representatives on the board of RTVE approved the state broadcaster's decision earlier this month to definitively ban bullfighting on the grounds that it breached its rules on animal cruelty. The hapless quartet has not broken ranks with the party; it appears that they were apparently so confused by the arcane language and complexity of RTVE's style guide that they were unaware of what they were voting in favor of.
And to add to the confusion, bullfighters themselves are divided over the merits of broadcasting. The top toreros, such as José Tomás, are vehemently opposed to televised corridas: "if people want to see us, then let them pay," he said recently. His and other star performers' refusals to appear at televised events that are broadcast for free reduces the likelihood of viewers tuning in.
There was a time, not so long ago, when bullfights, at least the big events held in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville, along with those staged as part of the annual festivals in other cities - such as Pamplona's Sanfermines - were staples of afternoon television. Back in the 1960s, a certain Manuel Benítez, better known to the world as El Cordobés, would regularly bring the country to a standstill as his exploits in the ring were broadcast live. And the toreros who succeeded him in the 1970s and 1980s continued to thrill aficionados, and arouse a certain patriotic sentiment even in those not especially interested in bullfighting.
But as Spain opened up more to Europe and the rest of the world, and animal rights activists began to organize themselves, the sense of wonder and the passion for bullfighting began to wane. Little by little, our knowledge of bullfighting dwindled; the rings were still full, and many tuned in at home, but as the corridas became increasingly subject to the whims of politicians at the regional and national level, the people who ran bullfighting decided to go for the money, and lost sight of the future.
Slowly but surely, so-called animal rights groups made bullfighting their cause, and eventually it was dragged under the political spotlight: few politicians were, or are, prepared to take a stand on the matter. There is a Parliamentary Bullfighting Association, but its membership is unknown; the only member of Congress prepared to defend the interests of bullfighting is Juan Manuel Albendea, a representative for Seville who has tirelessly questioned the heads of RTVE regarding the broadcaster's seemingly anti-bullfighting stance over the years, but with little success.
The first major victory of the anti-bullfighting lobby came in October 2004, when left-wing Catalan nationalist party Esquerra Republicana called on the current administration to stop broadcasting bullfights in the afternoon, charging that this exposed children to images of cruelty to animals. It also demanded that minors not be allowed into bullrings. The Communist Party-led United Left coalition suggested that bullfights be retransmitted in the early morning.
At this point, Albendea threw his hat into the ring, providing his parliamentary colleagues with a detailed and masterly account of the place of bullfighting in Spanish culture, concluding his speech by observing that the last government to propose a ban on minors watching bullfights was that of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera in the 1920s. "What is the point of trying to stop children watching bullfights on television? Surely it would be better to let parents decide what their children should see or not."
This is the view defended by Arturo Canalda, the Madrid regional government's Children's Ombudsman. "I do not believe that bullfighting has any negative impact on children, and I am convinced that there are far worse things being shown on television that we are unconcerned about," he said last year. Canalda points to the verbal violence and insults hurled around on Spain's innumerable reality shows, but says that bans and censorship do not work, and that parents must decide what is acceptable for their children to see or not.
Carmen Cafarell, who was appointed head of RTVE for a year in 2004 following the broadcaster's restructuring - aimed at creating a more independent body free of government control - told Albendea that RTVE was not anti-bullfighting, but that there were budgetary issues related to the cost of transmitting corridas live. The last bullfight shown live on Spanish state television was on October 14, 2006, as part of the Virgin of the Pilar festivities in Zaragoza.
The following year, after Luis Fernández took over at RTVE, he again justified the broadcaster's decision not to broadcast bullfights live, saying that the transmission costs were too high, and that advertising revenue was not sufficient. The body has yet to back up this claim with any figures. It said that its weekly bullfighting round up, Tendido Cero, shown on Saturday mornings on TVE2, garnered an average audience of around 200,000 - an audience share of 3.1 percent - and that it would continue to broadcast the annual Sanfermines bullfights held in mid-July.
RTVE's current boss, Alberto Oliart, was asked by Albendea why RTVE could not at least include news items on bullfighting, and proposed that the state broadcaster transmit at least 10 bullfights a year. The proposition was rejected thanks to the Socialist Party and conservative Catalan nationalist party CiU.
In response to the mounting onslaught against the corrida, a Bullfighting Round Table has been set up nationally, bringing together representatives from 15 associations active in bullfighting to lobby the government. Its chairman, Eduardo Martín Peñato, accuses the government of sitting on its hands: "It doesn't want to turn its back on the bulls, but neither is it supporting them." Early last year, they met with RTVE, asking for bullfights to be given more coverage, and for at least two or three of the major events in the bullfighting calendar to be broadcast.
Martín Peñato highlights the sector's contribution to the economy. "It is unacceptable for cost to be used as an excuse for not showing bullfights when we are talking about a public entity: Spanish state television needs to bear in mind the 2.5 billion euros that the sector contributes to the country's GDP."
Carlos Abella, the head of a Madrid-based bullfighting association, says it is clear that RTVE's bullfighting ban is due to government pressure, despite its stated commitment to freeing the organization from such influence, noting sarcastically: "This is just another example of the government and the Socialists' support for bullfighting and the culture of this country."
What then to make of the situation in Andalusia, where the regional television channel, publicly funded by a Socialist Party administration, has thrown its weight behind bullfighting? Manuel Brenes, a senior executive at RTVA, says that the broadcaster is proud of the agreement it reached in late 2004 with the regional parliament, which called for an increase in the number of bullfights shown on television, along with more programs about bullfighting, as well as teaching students about it in school.
So, is bullfighting part of Spain's cultural heritage, is it cruelty to animals, are we trying to protect our children or are the politicians using it for their own short-term ends? There seems to be no clear answer. But one thing is true: the days of seeing bullfights broadcast on state television have come to an end.