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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
Venezuelan TV: Change and cable
Gallery operators at RCTV before it ended terrestrial broadcasts
RCTV's signal covered most of Venezuela
The decision not to renew the broadcast licence of Venezuela's oldest television station, Radio Caracas Television, provoked controversy inside and outside Venezuela.

The channel, which in 2002 broadcast calls to overthrow President Hugo Chavez, went off its terrestrial frequency at the end of May.

Carlos Chirinos of BBC Mundo reports from Caracas on how Venezuelans' viewing habits have since been forced to change:

Venezuela is one of the world's main producers, consumers and exporters of TV soap operas. The main channels can broadcast up to six dramas a day, and they have always attracted the biggest audiences.

But in the eight years of President Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution", the soaps have at times seen their audience overtaken in favour of the political drama played out in the news bulletins.

In a series of articles BBC correspondents in Latin America examine the state and scope of the region's media

This has happened at "historic" moments, for example the attempted coup in April 2002, the national strike from December 2002 to February 2003, and the referendum in August 2004 on whether President Chavez should serve out his term.

But as reality can be too much and too frustrating, audiences end up returning to the fictional tears of actors. That is, until the next real-life drama.

RCTV's rival

That was the case recently when RCTV did not have its licence renewed. It was the country's oldest channel, the most critical of the government and, according to opinion polls, the most popular.

Since 28 May, when RCTV stopped broadcasting on its free-to-air frequency, there has been a shake-up in Venezuelan media. This has not benefited RCTV's long-time rival, Venevision, with which it monopolised 80% of the audience, but a small 24-hour news channel, Globovision.

Supporters of President Chavez during a rally in favour of ending RCTV's licence
The RCTV saga drew protests on both sides of the political divide
Globovision has achieved second place in the rankings, ahead of national channels like Televen or state-run Venezolana de Television.

"Viewing habits have been broken - and made more complicated. People were used to tuning in to RCTV for 53 years, a channel that was almost always the most viewed," Oscar Schemel, director of polling organisation Hinterlaces, told the BBC.

Mr Schemel said it was too early to determine trends. Given past experiences, it could be that viewers return to the soaps.

King TV

Whether with news or drama, TV has always been king of the media in Venezuela, capturing about 90% of advertising spending. The number of TV channels - regional, specialist or, in particular, public - is increasing and it seems there is enough audience for all. Even the smallest channels appear to be good business.

You can watch TV in Venezuela everywhere - at home, of course, but also in hospital waiting rooms, in airports, in the metro and even in your car.

In any bakery, cafe, restaurant or small kiosk, there is a TV on and people watching to see what is happening on screen.

Viewers' reasons? "It's the easiest to follow." "It's the quickest, you can get information straightaway." "I don't read much, I watch TV all the time."

Some say they use other media to continue watching TV. An office worker said she watched Globovision on the computer because "in the office you can't watch TV".

World pattern

Marcelino Bisbal, former director of the social communication school at Venezuela's Central University, says Venezuelans are following a global pattern.

"About 80% of people watch TV daily, about 75% listen to the radio and 49% read newspapers," said Mr Bisbal, updating figures from a study he conducted in 2000.

For Mr Bisbal, that year there began to be a "political schism" in the way people used the media.

There are people who just watch Globovision - a channel described by government spokesmen, as was RCTV, as "coup-mongering". And there are viewers who just watch Venezolana de Television where there is always the official line on events.

At times the channels do not even agree on what is news. One broadcasts a story, the other ignores it. The same happens with radio stations and the press.

There is specific media for specific people, according to their political allegiance.

Emotional break-up

But these divisions seem to be just editorial - soap operas rise above the political debate.

In a recent show of support for President Chavez against RCTV, a group of young people told the BBC they were sad the channel had disappeared.

Cast of My Cousin Ciela. Photo: Courtesy RCTV
My Cousin Ciela was one of RCTV's top soaps
"It's a bit strange because it was the station I had always watched," a young woman called Karina said.

People miss RCTV's programmes - not just soaps but the most watched programme, Venezuela's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

"Low-income viewers who watched RCTV's soaps feel upset, and that even affects the government," Mr Bisbal said.

So where has the most of the audience gone, given that state-funded Venezuelan Social Television (TVES), which occupies RCTV's old frequency, is attracting about 4% of viewers, according to the latest figures?

Subscription TV

It seems viewers have turned to cable or satellite.

Mario Seijas, president of Venezuela's Chamber of Subscription TV (Cavetsu), says this has been especially marked in areas where only RCTV's terrestrial signal used to reach.

"When the channel stopped transmitting, they were left without anything," Mr Seijas said. "In those towns people have switched over to cable.

He also says the rise in subscription TV is not only due to the RCTV case.

"People feel better off and have the money to pay for the service," he said.

According to the National Telecommunications Commission, about one million homes have cable legally, and Cavetsu says another 600,000 have an illegal connection.

In a country where the president often makes use of his prerogative to interrupt schedules to appear on national networks, more people are saying they have turned to cable as an alternative.

But the spur to turn to cable is not just to avoid the president's announcements, but to have more viewing options.


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