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Venezuelan TV: chained to censorship and frozen in time

The Chavista regime waged a crusade to dominate mass media. Political censorship has alienated audiences from the small screen

Nicolás Maduro, accompanied by virtual host Sira, in his program 'Con Maduro+'
Nicolás Maduro, accompanied by virtual host Sira, in his program 'Con Maduro+' [With Maduro].

A few weeks ago, social media users celebrated the fact that the traditional cachapa — a corn cake cooked on a budare [griddle] and stuffed with fresh cheese — had triumphed in MasterChef Australia. This comfort food was prepared by a Venezuelan contestant, one of the seven million who have left the country in the last decade. Antonio Cruz Vaamonde was the star of that episode. However, this kind of show has never been produced in his native country. Venezuelan television has been left out of the furor of game shows and reality franchises that, with the irruption of streaming, have managed to sustain traditional TV audiences across the world.

Venezuela also no longer has live news coverage on TV. Twenty years of government censorship have transformed the media and disconnected it from the people. More than 500 media outlets have closed since Hugo Chávez took power in 1999. Almost half of these were radio stations. Even iconic channels with the biggest audiences — such as Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), the first Venezuelan television channel — were shuttered by the administrations of either Chávez (1999-2013) or Nicolás Maduro (2013-present).

On a Sunday night this past July, during primetime, four major Venezuelan channels simultaneously ran Corazón Llanero [Countryside Heart], a music program developed by an official in the Maduro administration. It was broadcast on Vive, created by Chávez 20 years ago to promote community and cultural journalism; TV Fanb, the Armed Forces channel that began airing in 2014, Maduro’s first full year in power; Tves, the signal that replaced the critical channel RCTV when it was shuttered 16 years ago; and on VTV, the official state station. While the number of TV channels has grown in recent years, Venezuelans who don’t have access to cable or streaming platforms are condemned to outdated, low-quality programming, packed with high doses of Chavista propaganda.

Of 19 free channels, only eight are privately-owned. The “communication hegemony” that Chávez aspired to impose has come to fruition. Of the eight private channels, at least five are backed by capital that is linked to the government.

“Television continues to be the most massive medium, but what’s been happening in Venezuela is that, with the years of Chávez’s networks and the closure of RCTV, there was a change in consumption. People developed antibodies to national television,” explains Carlos Correa, director of the NGO Espacio Público [Public Space].

A clip of the Chavista TV program 'Corazón Llanero' [Countryside Heart].
A clip of the Chavista TV program 'Corazón Llanero' [Countryside Heart].

While the state channels were in unison on a Sunday night, there were no better options on private television. On two channels, they broadcast the results of the lotteries, which now offer prizes in dollars. This is in a country where, for more than 15 years, it was forbidden to have foreign currency that wasn’t obtained from the government.

Later on in the evening, a block of Brazilian, Mexican and Colombian telenovelas — which were released between 10 and 20 years ago — would begin. On Globovisión, an extensive segment was dedicated to analyzing the latest intricacies of the relationship between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Until 2012, this was the only 24-hour news channel in Venezuela; coverage of the government was intense and critical. Before Globovisión was sold — after which it radically changed its editorial line — it received fines of more than $2 million for broadcasting a prison riot in real-time. These sanctions led other newscasts to drop much of their live coverage, which led to off-screen consequences. “The absence of strong television [coverage] has further fostered the fragmentation of the debate in Venezuela and the growth of mistrust. The public agenda has been impoverished by television,” Correa laments.

A recently-published book on informative and cultural consumption in Venezuela conducts an overview of this sector through a survey. In 2022, Venezuelans preferred cable TV for entertainment (47%), followed by Facebook (37%). In last place, at 26%, was local free-to-air television. Channel-surfing in Venezuela is essentially looking through a catalog of the past, both in terms of content and quality of production. Censorship and self-censorship, the lack of investment in the television industry and the loss of quality shows — both domestic and foreign — have forced the public to migrate to cable and other platforms, the book concludes.

In 2020, the closure of Directv’s operations in Venezuela — the satellite television service with the most reach in the country — was a tragedy for many Venezuelans. “When Directv left, it caused a shock because it had been [a way to escape] the free channels,” says Correa, who compiled the research for the aforementioned book together with Marcelino Bisbal. In Venezuela, where purchasing power has fallen brutally amidst hyperinflation and a recession has eaten two-thirds of GDP, there’s a growing secondary and pirated market, which serves as a way to access better and more current content. This has surged in the absence of bank credit in the country, which is the main method of contracting streaming services.

A telenovela drought

Venezuelan television hasn’t undergone the transition process that has occurred in other countries, such as neighboring Colombia, where big Spanish-language studios and content producers have reinvented themselves. The economic crisis and government control kept Venezuela TV away from that process. As far back as 2003, Chávez enacted laws to regulate content. This imposed a stranglehold on the producers of so-called “cultural soap operas” — stories more removed from melodrama and closer to reality and social criticism.

This year, however, the return of a new drama has been announced, with the legendary Venezuela actress Lupita Ferrer in the cast. This comes after a nearly decade-long drought of new soap operas. The Venevisión channel is betting on recovering the Venezuelan market, while maintaining other international signals. The recent rebound in the economy has put television production opportunities back in play, in a country that once had one of the most powerful audiovisual industries and churned out soap operas as cultural exports. Just as Turkish dramas dominate today, Venezuelan productions were once in high demand.

Of course, this gamble comes with a big challenge. It’s not only going to be tough to conquer the public again, but it will also be difficult to find talent in a depleted artistic sector, which has suffered due to mass emigration. Investments to update old technology will also be costly — HD is just beginning in Venezuela.

While private channels are making efforts to jumpstart production, Maduro launched a new television program two months ago — the third in his 10 years of government. In the two-hour space called Con Maduro+ [With Maduro], the president reads the news and messages from social media, belittles opponents and enemies of his government and interacts with his officials. He’s joined by two young female presenters, who present breaking news, and Sira, an artificial intelligence avatar. Maduro also acts as an interviewer in scripted segments with the studio audience.

A few weeks ago, he interviewed a Venezuelan scientist who won an award from National Geographic for his work preserving the yellow-shouldered parrot. A couple of birds were displayed inside a cage. The president asked if they bit, and after hesitating, he refrained from sticking a finger inside the bars.

Every Monday, there’s a new episode broadcast on the state channel, linked to an extensive network of open signals and social media, all of which make up the Chavista-controlled grid.

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