No drama: the decline of TVE as budget ax falls on public broadcaster

Cut on big-budget productions to balance books sees ratings plummet

A moment from the historical family series 'Cuéntame cómo pasó'.
A moment from the historical family series 'Cuéntame cómo pasó'.

As predicted, the decision by TVE to stop producing its own drama series in a bid to save money has seen its audience share fall steadily since the beginning of the year. In March, after six months atop the ratings, the state broadcaster's La 1 channel's share fell by 1.3 percent, and it garnered just 12.8 percent of viewers, its lowest ever total. It owes its continued survival to soccer - it still has rights to the Champions League - and the quality of its news programs.

TVE's budget has been cut by 20 percent this year, to 1.2 billion euros, and officials there say that the corporation is increasingly at a disadvantage compared to private channels. European Union legislation passed in 2009 now prevents RTVE from showing advertisements, starving it of around 475 million euros a year. Unlike public broadcasting arrangements in France and Britain, Spain does not have a license fee to make up the difference.

TVE faces a particularly expensive year, and will have to pay out around 90 million euros for the rights to the London Olympics this summer. The company has considered ceding private channels rights to certain events to try to recoup some of its investment. In the meantime, it says it cannot afford to produce big-budget drama series.

Isabel, a series about the life and times of the queen who unified Spain, kicked out the Jews and the Moors, and commissioned Columbus to discover a new route to India, was scheduled to be broadcast this spring, but has been held back. New seasons of highly popular series such as Cuéntame cómo pasó (or, Tell me how it happened) - a long-running drama telling the story of a family from the Franco era up to the present day - and fantasy saga Águila roja (or, Red eagle) have also been on hold through the winter months. The result has been a gradual loss of viewers which, unsurprisingly, has not been stemmed by showing 40-year old movies passed off as "classic cinema."

TVE's future increasingly looks like depending on soccer, movie premieres, and news. Among the top-30 programs watched in March it had two Champions League matches; Mission: Impossible III, and Flightplan, dating from 2006 and 2005 respectively; along with the evening news and weather. Among the top 50 it managed to place an hour-long program made up of repeats of skits by comedian José Mota, along with post-Civil War soap opera Amar en tiempos revueltos (or, Love in troubled times) that each attracted around three million viewers.

Meanwhile, Telecinco owes its leading 13.9-percent market share to comedy series Aída and a bio-series about the eventful life of singer Isabel Pantoja. Antena 3 has countered with its own comedy series Con el culo al aire (or, Caught with your pants down), along with motor racing and X-Factor clone Número 1, which has given it a total market share of 12.4 percent.

TVE's other channels have fared no better: its arts and documentary channel, La 2, has also failed to hold its audience share, slipping a 10th of a point to 2.6 percent. Children's channel Clan TV has fallen to 2.3 percent, while its 24-hour news channel has just held on to its 0.9 percent share. Sports station Teledeporte has clawed a tenth of a point up to 0.7 percent. In total, TVE's different channels give it a 19.4-percent overall share, but the company's management says that these specialist channels could soon be axed, and predict that over the course of the year, La 1's viewership could fall to below 10 percent.

The decline of TVE is benefitting regional stations for the moment, although the latter could face budget cuts from hard-pressed regional governments. The country's two smaller private channels, Cuatro and La Sexta, have been locked in a ratings war to capture a younger audience, with Cuatro, majority owned by Telecinco - and in which Grupo Prisa, to which EL PAÍS belongs, has a minority stake - gaining ground with 6.4 percent compared to La Sexta's 4.9 percent.

At present, around 45 percent of TVE's budget is funded by the taxpayer, along with a series of other taxes from businesses using the radio spectrum or paid by commercial television broadcasters based on the extra revenue they earn from advertising.

Since television started in Spain in 1957, it has always operated following a free-to-air model, with a public sector funded partially by the taxpayer, but also through advertising. The introduction of commercial television in Spain in 1989 did not change this model, but the dual funding of TVE was stopped in large part due to criticism from its commercial rivals who termed it unfair competition. In 2008, the last full year TVE ran ads, it brought in 557 million euros. TVE has lost around 50 million euros a year since it stopped broadcasting advertisements.

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