How politics has blighted Spain’s regional broadcasters

The Valencia government’s decision to close down Canal 9 has highlighted the weaknesses of a publicly funded media model that has systematically failed to meet its remit

Rosario G. Gómez
RTVV staff showed support for the news team during a Canal 9 broadcast after the Valencia premier had announced the network's closure.
RTVV staff showed support for the news team during a Canal 9 broadcast after the Valencia premier had announced the network's closure.

Some of Spain's regional governments literally could not wait to set up their own television and radio companies. Congress was still debating legislation to end state broadcaster RTVE's monopoly when the nationalist administrations in the Basque Country and Catalonia went ahead and respectively launched EITB and TV3; the former on New Year's Eve 1982, and the latter nine months later in September 1983, stymieing the efforts of José María Calviño, the then director general of RTVE, who had campaigned hard to keep regional channels under the control of the central government via the state broadcaster. Over the last two decades, regional networks have grown to take a 10-percent share of Spain's television audience.

Local broadcasters inherited many of the vices of state television: they were tightly controlled by their regional government paymasters, who in turn used them for their own political ends, and they also ran up huge debts. That said; they did fulfill a mission in promoting regional language and culture.

Such was the job supposedly of Valencia's RTVV, until Alberto Fabra, the Popular Party (PP) regional premier, last week suddenly decided to close the station, set up in 1989, after a court had overruled his plan to sack around 1,000 of the 1,700 workforce.

"The ruling leaves us no other option than to proceed with the closure because the funding this television station had three years ago is no longer affordable. The closure process will be carried out as quickly as possible," said Fabra last Thursday, adding that the cash-strapped region was in the position of having to choose between "schools and hospitals, and a television company."

Political influence on the regional search for identity has been scandalous"

While moves are afoot to petition local support for the station, some of the company's management, including RTVV's director general, Rosa Vidal, have already quit. RTVV's accumulated debt is more than one billion euros, says the regional government, but this would be the first time that a public broadcaster has closed. Telemadrid may follow suit if the courts overrule a similar plan to lay off most of its workforce.

The crisis and the internet have hit television hard: advertising revenue is down, and our viewing habits are changing. And it's not just the regional stations that are struggling. RTVE has had its budget cut as well.

In response, the old idea of the regional channels being run as satellites of the national RTVE network has been revived. The PP's Esteban Pons, who represents Valencia in Congress, has proposed creating a federation of regional channels along the lines of Germany's ARD, which operates a national station, as well as seven regional channels, and is funded via license fees. France 3 and Italy's RAI3 are similar models.

María Lamuedra, a lecturer in journalism at the University of Seville, points out that Spain's regions have their own parliaments, and that this requires regional governments to provide "people with all the information they need to elect and supervise their political representatives" via a publicly run broadcasting system. And for them to do that, Lamuedra says that they need sufficient resources and proper parliamentary and professional oversight.

Anybody could see this coming, but in Valencia no one seemed that bothered"

Spain's broadcasting system is among the most complex in Europe, says Ramón Reig, a professor at the University of Seville, reflecting "the complexity of its national identities." He says that the country's regional governments have misused publicly funded local television and radio, and instead of focusing on their original remit to reflect regional issues have instead sought to boost their ratings and cut costs by filling schedules with reality shows and cheap imports, manipulating news and current affairs programs to their own ends and generally wasting taxpayers' money.

"This is the direct responsibility of the people managing these companies; of the regional political parties and the regional governments," says Reig, accusing politicians of interfering directly by hiring journalists with similar political views, and generally introducing a pork barrel approach to running television and radio stations funded with public money. "They would then say that the fall in audience share shows that the public model doesn't work," he says.

Hugo Aznar, the head of the Political Sciences department at the Cardenal Herrera University in Valencia, also blames interfering politicians for many of the woes now facing regional broadcasters. "It is quite unacceptable that the PP's appalling management of RTVV means that a publicly owned media organization is finished. This isn't about having to choose between funding schools or funding television; this is about the people running the station having spent huge amounts of money on big events, or paying the salaries of so-called advisors. But it could be too late to do anything about it."

Lamuedra also accuses regional governments of failing to meet their remit: "Public television is about supporting health, education, and the wider interests of society." Not that the warning signs haven't been there for many years.

This is a gift for those who say that the public  model doesn't work"

The problem is that nobody was paying any attention, says Hugo Aznar, who a decade ago sat on a commission set up by the regional parliament of Valencia to look into the financing of RTVV. He highlighted what he saw as bad programming policies, as well as the regional government's use of Canal 9 for its own political ends, forecasting that this would likely lead to the station's collapse. "Anybody could see this coming, but people in Valencia didn't seem to be bothered by the prospect, and it is only now, 10 years later, when the horse has bolted, that anybody is thinking about closing the stable door."

With the exception of the Popular Party, politicians throughout Spain have criticized the decision to close RTVV down. Other regionally run broadcasters, with the exception of Telemadrid, have also sounded the alarm, fearing the collapse of a system which, whatever its current defects, plays a key role in many regions.

In fairness, some of Spain's regional governments questioned the viability of the self-financing model from the start, instead arguing for an overhaul and restructuring at RTVE to create a new system of public broadcasting that reflected the needs of the regions. The regional government of Andalusia, which has been controlled by the Socialist Party since Spain's return to democracy, looked into this approach, but failure to reach agreement with the central government led, in 1989, to the creation of Canal Sur, the same year that Canal 9 in Valencia and Telemadrid were born.

The Canary Islands, the Balearics, Aragon, Castilla-La Mancha, Asturias, Murcia and Extremadura all followed suit soon after, each with its own regional model.

This could be time for TV to be reborn and fulfill its democratic mission"

In general, the regional broadcasters fulfill their public service mission, says Reig: the problem is how they go about it. "Their job is to entertain viewers through quality programming; at the same time, they need to be independent of the political parties, with professionals and experts appointed to guarantee quality. Planning and management needs to be rational, and not influenced by politics. What has happened so far is basically a gift to those who say that the public service model doesn't work, and that it should all be privatized." he says.

The only regions in Spain where there is no local television are Navarre, Cantabria and La Rioja. Navarre opted for a privately funded model, as well as signing deals with the Basque EITB. Miguel Revilla, the former head of the regional government of Cantabria, says that there was never much interest from voters, as in La Rioja, which has a population of 320,000 people, and where setting up a public channel would have proved too costly.

Reig, who also heads a media observation laboratory, says that television that reflects local and regional differences is important, but that there have been abuses: "The search for a regional identity has led to some absurd situations, and political influence has been scandalous. The Socialist Party has on occasion accused the nationalist CiU party of interference in the Catalan broadcaster. The PP has also said that the nationalist coalition there used TV3 for its own political ends. In Valencia, the PP and the Socialists both used the regional television station when they were in power. At one time you had the situation whereby the Socialists were accusing the PP of misusing Canal 9, while the PP in Andalusia was accusing the Socialists of manipulating Canal Sur." Tired of such shenanigans, Manuel Ángel Vázquez Medel, the president of a council set up to monitor the use of the media in Andalusia, stepped down in protest.

Cardenal Herrera University's Aznar defends publicly funded broadcasters, but says that their brief must be clearly defined, along with their impartiality and support for local issues and culture. They should also screen a significant part of their programming in their regional language, where that is a relevant factor.

"Sadly, a quarter of a century after their birth, very few of the regional broadcasters are actually doing their job, and the blame for that lies with politicians, who have converted them into propaganda units, interfering with programming, making political appointments, as well as failing to be transparent," he says, while warning against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

"As in other cases, the current crisis shows that the regional broadcasters have hit rock bottom, having run up huge debts and lost their audience share; at the same time, this could be the moment for them to be reborn, and this time they would fulfill their democratic mission," says Aznar, who believes the time has come to look at a new model that would see smaller stations functioning on smaller budgets, and focused much more on local issues, using independent journalists. "For this to work though, we would need to exclude politicians from sitting on their boards. Such an idea was impossible even a few months ago, but the current situation is an excellent opportunity, and one that we should not miss."

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