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Mexico Sells State TV; Don't Expect Change

THE Mexican government had a chance last month to further democracy in Mexico by selling off television concessions it has operated since 1972. The sale was a golden opportunity to break the monopoly of the giant conglomerate, Televisa - which uses its 90 percent audience share to anesthetize viewers with soap operas.

At Televisa, objective reporting of national politics is virtually nonexistent. Candidates opposing the ruling Revolutionary Party (PRI) are rarely seen, and when they are, they are portrayed derisively. Televisa's owner, Emilio Azcarraga, proclaims his right to favor the PRI and exclude others.

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On Mexican TV there are no programs such as "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," "This Week with David Brinkley," "Face the Nation," or even the political satire of the "Tonight Show" monologue.

So the government divestiture, in the works for two years, was anxiously awaited. There were hopes that the winner of the auction for state channels 7 and 13 would be a bidder with radio experience, who would expose the Mexican population to contrasting and diverse views. Perhaps private ownership would provide an alternative to the mediocrity and self-censorship of Televisa.

Apparently this was wishful thinking. The surprise winner of the auction, for some $640 million dollars, was Grupo Elektra, headed by a 37-year-old businessman named Ricardo Salinas Pliego, who has no experience in the electronic media.

In his first statements to the press, Mr. Salinas Pliego set the tone: The role of Mexican women should be that of the traditional homemaker, he pointed out. The function of television is to distract and relax viewers; he hoped his programming would be entertaining. TV is not meant to be educational - that is what school and home are for. TV was a great form of business. It is meant to be apolitical and not a force for furthering democracy.

This latter view is not surprising, since Salinas Pliego has said elsewhere that Mexico is not ready to be a democracy.

Since his public statements after the July 18 sale, Salinas Pliego has been raked over the coals by the Mexican print media. There is disgust that there will be no change from the news and bland entertainment the public currently accepts. The elite may have US programming on cable. But Mr. Azcarraga and Salinas Pliego feel quality is beyond the scope of the masses.

Entertainment will be limited to the standard dubbed United States sitcoms, old Latin American soap operas, low-class game shows, and sports. The chances of getting a program like "Masterpiece Theater" are nil.

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Analysis and information for voters to make educated judgments at election time? Forget it. Televisa's Azcarraga has voiced disdain for Mexico's masses, and it seems Salinas Pliego is following suit. He has a similar philosophy.

Nor will Televisa have to endure the kind of competitive battle for talent that tends to sharpen or diversify programming.

In the past few months Televisa signed exclusivity contracts with many of Mexico's leading actors, writers, directors, and producers. Under these six-year agreements "the party of the second part" cannot work for anyone else, even when not working for Televisa. In the US, viewers are used to seeing actors from one network appear as guests on another network. That won't be allowed under Televisa's contracts.

The government indicates these contracts may be invalid if they are denounced as unfair restraints on trade. But when asked if he would challenge, Salinas Pliego replied that the country had plenty of capable people - a position many find far too acquiescent.

Why did the government award these coveted concessions - and the great power that goes with them - to Salinas Pliego? There were more qualified bidders. The easy answer is that Salinas Pliego's bid was 30 percent higher than the others.

But there were other factors. The government probably saw Salinas Pliego's lack of media experience as a plus. Bidders from radio have enjoyed, and are used to, more freedom of expression.

Salinas Pliego was avowedly pro-government; it was likely he would apply these sentiments to Televisa.

For President Salinas de Gortari and the ruling party these matters are extremely important as the country prepares for the 1994 presidential elections. No point in selling TV stations to someone who might give opposition party presidential candidates a heretofore unheard voice. As in previous years and decades, the Mexican people have been sold out again.

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