Spotlight falls on Televisa, Mexico’s all-powerful TV station
Critics accuse Televisa of manipulating politicians and viewers and threatening democracy
For decades Televisa’s logo – a golden human eye gazing at the world through a television screen – captured the company’s success at controlling and dominating what Mexicans watched.
The media firm, the biggest in Latin America, produced soap operas, quiz shows, films and news bulletins that reflected and reinforced the country’s concentration of economic and political power.
Televisa’s eye, with the pupil in the form of a globe, remained an unblinking stare during authoritarian one-party rule and Mexico’s transition to multiparty democracy, a change that only increased the company’s wealth and influence.
“You could say it’s like Murdoch on steroids in the sense Televisa has operated under far fewer constraints than Murdoch,” said Andrew Paxman, a historian and co-author of El Tigre, a biography of Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, the mogul whose father founded the company and the dynasty that still controls it.
Now, however, the logo suddenly evokes something else: a critical eye turned on Televisa itself in unprecedented scrutiny of the way it allegedly manipulates politicians and viewers.
The company’s alleged use – abuse, say critics – of programming for political and commercial ends has become an explosive issue in Sunday’s election. Student-led protesters have seized the agenda by marching on Televisa’s headquarters and calling the network a threat to democracy. The frontrunner for president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has been thrown on the defensive over evidence uncovered by the Guardian detailing his links to Televisa, whose channels account for about two thirds of free-to-air television. Its rival, Azteca, accounts for most of the other third.
“The power of the television networks does not lie in their economic power but in their ability to manipulate opinion. About 98% of homes have a television, and it is on between four to six hours a day in around 60% of homes,” said Purificación Carpinteyro, a former under-secretary of communications.
“The degree of concentration in television is an attack on democracy. It gives them enormous power to extort. The [networks] have the political class under control because nobody wants to be insulted or rubbed out or exhibited on TV. The television calling somebody corrupt is tantamount to a judgment from the supreme court.”
How Televisa acquired and uses its clout is a tale of intrigue worthy of the overwrought telenovelas – soaps – which it makes and exports across the Spanish-speaking world.
Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta started his empire with a Mexico City-based radio station in 1930. It grew into a chain of radio and television stations that in effect monopolised Mexico’s airwaves thanks to patronage from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled for most of the 20th century. Azcárraga returned the favour by turning news into PRI propaganda and slanting entertainment shows to reinforce its conservative ethos.
“It was a symbiotic relationship. Each side helped the other to retain its monopoly,” said Paxman, who teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.
“Telenovelas, for instance, preached knowing your place in society, of being happy with your lot.”
When Azcárraga Milmo died in 1997 his son, Emilio Azcárraga Jean, took over and transformed what had become a bloated behemoth into a slick media giant in time to adjust to the PRI’s loss of power in elections in 2000, ushering in a more complicated – and lucrative – multiparty era.
Generous state funds were given to parties to consolidate the fledgling democracy, making them big buyers of media advertising. They had additional funding for public awareness campaigns – de facto advertising – when running municipal, state and federal governments, making politicians the media’s dominant revenue source.
“Democracy is a good client,” Emilio Azcárraga Jean told the US-Mexican chamber of commerce in 2004. Televisa’s nebulous ideology facilitated a pragmatic shift to dealing not just with the PRI, which clung on to local and regional power bases, but with rivals such as the conservative National Action party (PAN) and the leftwing party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
“Before those with political power paid the media to be on their side, now the media charges. Paying for something is very different to being charged,” said Rubén Aguilar, a former spokesman for Vincente Fox, a PAN leader and president from 2000-06.
In 2007 the Mexican congress hit back at the media lords with a law giving political parties free TV advertising during elections and banning paid-for political spots.
Pictured: An anti-PRI protester in Mexico. ‘The TV lies,’ says the box on his head. Photograph: Reuters