Spain's Private TV Stations Invigorate News Coverage

Article excerpt

With a mournful looks on her face the Spanish television host leaned toward the grieving father and asked, "Fernando, what is the pain like of losing your daughter? I want you to share your pain with us."

A rather delicate question to ask on live television to a man who had only hours earlier discovered that his 15-year-old daughter had been brutally raped and murdered. The plethora of this type of reality show is probably the most obvious and macabre manifestation of the change in Spanish news and public affairs programming since private television first hit the airwaves in late 1989.

In little more than four years the privates have caused an informational earthquake in what had been a highly stable television landscape dominated for more than 30 years by TVE, the television arm of Radio Television Espanola (RTVE), the state-run monopoly. Along with the first wave of monopoly breakers - Spain's six regional public stations - the young privates are changing the way Spaniards see the world and how they see themselves. Many may not like what they see, but they continue to tune in at an average rate of nearly 3.5 hours per day per capita, one of the highest rates in the European Union.

I think I fall somewhat below average, but in the past 16 months I have watched my fill of Spanish television, and I have seen how this new competition is invigorating news programming but also exposing some frayed patches in Spain's tightly knit social fabric.

The three new private stations consist of two commercial networks and a pay TV service. Tele 5, partly owned by Italian media mogul and now Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, devoted little resources to news, but its innovative format helped earn respectable ratings. Tele 5 incorporated a series of well-known commentators to analyze and offer opinions on events of the day. The station also offers the most sensational of all the new reality shows. In one of its most popular programs, the Truth Machine, controversial figures are quizzed by a panel of well-known guests and then strapped into a lie detector. John Wayne Bobbit even made a recent appearance. Bobbit picked up a hefty fee, but the machine accused him of lying when he claimed he didn't force his wife to have sex with him the night of her ultimate revenge.

Antena 3 began investing heavily in news programming after a management shuffle in 1992. The station hired a well-known anchor from TVE to head its news and subsequently convinced other popular anchors to jump ship. Its investigative unit recently broadcast slick documentaries on a failed coup attempt in 1982 and another on the CESID, Spain's CIA.

Canal +, the pay station, launched a low-budget news operation that relies heavily on news feeds and a handful of reporters to produce a nightly news show. The station also broadcasts Peter Jennings on World News Tonight and its newscast is probably the most American in style.

Per capita, Spaniards read fewer newspapers than just about any other nationality in the European Union and have always had a healthy appetite for television news. TVE's daily news broadcasts consistently finish among Spain's top-rated programs. TVE's Informe Semanal, a news magazine similar to 60 Minutes, enjoys solid ratings after more than 20 years on the air. The public network broadcasts more documentaries in a month than American commercial stations air in a year. Debate programs, a kind of Spanish talk show, were already prolific when Phil Donahue was just cutting his teeth.

The debates generally feature a host and a variety of well-known guests who expound on issues of social import, but always with a curious Spanish flair. One popular debate program featured a regular striptease segment as a means of offering an intermission from the more weighty matters of the discussion. That was on the public, not a private, station.

On the daily front the advent of the privates has infused newscasts with the energy of dozens of young, inexperienced journalists determined to challenge TVE's deferential style of government-sources-know-best reporting. …