In December 2 this year Brazilians should be able to switch on their TV sets and find a new channel, one that is refreshingly free of the endless smut, soap operas, game shows, football chats, evangelical rallies and advertising which mark the current offerings by the main commercial channels. This should be good news for discerning viewers, one of whom is apparently President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In fact, Lula is so fed up with the low quality of Brazilian television that he has decided to set up a new one. This is the downside of what should be good news. The dangers are that the government will manipulate the content of the new channel, ensure that only propaganda appears and waste taxpayers’ money.
So far the government has not made a strong case that such a channel is really needed and, by setting such a close deadline, it has not given itself enough time to think out exactly how the station will work or be funded. The latter point is particularly important since the project will cost an estimated 300 million reais – around US$ 150 million.
This lack of planning was obvious from remarks made by the communication secretary, Franklin Martins, at an informal meeting with foreign correspondents held in São Paulo on May 14. Martins was short on details and long on generalities. Apart from saying that a bill would be sent to Congress or, failing that, a presidential decree would be signed, he was vague about the legal standing of the new station.
He said the funding would come from government funds earmarked for culture and from company sponsorship. There would be no advertising per se, no soap operas and the content would be general. To ensure that it was not a government mouthpiece, a minimum of 30 hours a week of independent content, including journalism, would be shown.
He gave no idea of the structure at the meeting although on other occasions he has said that the new channel would be based on the existing Radiobrás network and the public TV educational networks in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Maranhão. The fact that only two states will be involved shows how difficult it will be to create a truly national TV network – a public network, that is, since the commercial TV Globo network covers virtually the whole of Brazilian territory.
For good or bad, TV Globo has imposed a standard and brainwashed succeeding generations into accepting its idea of what television should be. As well as imposing soap operas, sport and low-brow entertainment on viewers, it has also used its power for political purposes. Lula knows this well since TV Globo went out of its way to sabotage his electoral campaign against Fernando Collor, in 1989.
However, there is one other state – São Paulo – with a widely admired public TV network. TV Cultura was founded in 1967 by the state government and is run by an independent foundation. It receives funding from the state government and corporate sponsorship but has no advertising. It has six TV studios, two radio stations and regional units. It broadcasts a wide range of programs on culture, education, entertainment and journalism and shows documentaries.
It is certainly better than the commercial channels although, in my opinion, not as good as it thinks it is but self-praise is a characteristic shared by the entire Brazilian media. However, instead of trying to entice TV Cultura on board or benefit from its experience and reputation, Martins seemed indifferent to whether it would "join" the new network.
Perhaps he was just being realistic since TV Cultura is unlikely to want to come under the federal government’s control. Nevertheless, efforts could at least be made to make TV Cultura an adviser or set up some kind of joint venture.
The government also appears to have made no effort to see how publicly-funded TV stations operate in other countries. Franklin made a reference to the BBC in passing but merely to show that, even with state funding, it has still broadcast material which the government did not like.
This lack of interest in other countries’ experience is particularly odd as both Martins and the communications minister, Hélio Costa, are former journalists, with broadcasting experience, who have worked abroad.
Martins was a newspaper correspondent in London in the early 90s and spent eight years with TV Globo back in Brazil. Costa has a background in radio journalism and even worked for the Voice of America in Washington. He also claims to have been a war correspondent in El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Middle East.
Costa says he wants a "public" and not a "state-run" channel. "State TV is what Chavez has (in Venezuela), state TV is what they have in Cuba. State TV is what they had in Poland and the former Soviet Union. I have been to all these places to find out the difference between state and public TV," he told the Folha Online news agency earlier this year.
If Costa thought this half-baked remark would remove concern then he was wrong. Venezuela and Cuba are a lot closer to Brazil than the former Soviet Union. Brazilians have been following events in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez has refused to renew the license of the RCTV station which opposes his government.
No-one here expects Lula to try and shut down TV Globo but equally no-one expects the new station to allow the kind of anti-government material RCTV presents in Venezuela to appear on it either. In fact, we do not even know what to expect because, in the absence of a legal foundation, nothing has been done to set up studios or hire management and staff.
Presumably, the Radiobrás and TV stations in Rio de Janeiro and Maranhão will be integrated and their resources used. However, this looks like a very shaky platform for such a grand venture. As for the "independent" content, one can look forward to the equivalent of the record-breaking, tractor-production and pig iron features which marked old-fashioned Communist propaganda or politically correct programs on topics which will send viewers straight back to the trivia and trite supplied by TV Globo and Sílvio Santos.
Supporters of the new station respond by saying that commercial stations have their own political and business agenda and are selective about what they present. This is true and Lula and his leftist supporters may be right to claim that the commercial media – print and broadcast – has been against them.
However, this has not prevented Lula being elected president twice and shows that, at the end of the day, people will make up their own minds who to believe when voting. Lula should stick to running the country, not setting up TV Lula.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© John Fitzpatrick 2007