Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Time To Turn Off The TV?: IB3

In Valencia at the end of last week, several thousand people demonstrated against a regional government announcement that the government-funded RTVV (Radio Televisión Valenciana) was to close. The decision to shut the broadcaster down was one taken, according to the government, because of a need to choose between it and spend on health and education. Those calling for the decision to be reconsidered argue the closure constitutes an attack on democracy and on the Valencian economy; apart from those at the broadcaster who will lose their jobs, over 100 media and production companies employing some 3,000 people may well be forced to close as well.

In the Balearics, there were protests two years ago when the decision was taken to close TV Mallorca. There were similar objections to those now being made in Valencia. Among them were claims that Mallorca's audiovisual industry would be hit hard and that some 2,000 employees could find themselves at risk of losing their jobs. The final transmission was in December 2011 and a year later a further decision by the Council of Mallorca, which had been the body that had closed TV Mallorca, was greeted as representing a potentially fatal blow to the local AV industry; this was the decision to close the Mallorca Film Commission.

The AV industry also criticised cuts to budgets at IB3, the other Mallorca government-funded broadcaster. When these cuts were added to the closure of TV Mallorca and of the film commission, they together amounted to a major threat to an industry which, in no small part, has been at the forefront of a drive towards a stronger technology-based economy on the island.

While lack of funding has been used as the justification for closure, there has also been a heavy dose of politics. TV Mallorca, a company created by the then Unió Mallorquina-led Council of Mallorca, received backing from organisations such as GOB, the environmental group, and the OCB, the promoters of Catalan culture, when the by now Partido Popular-led Council took its decision to close the station. IB3, in the meantime, has become a broadcaster firmly under the control of the PP. The likes of GOB, so it has been alleged, are all but barred, while there was criticism of IB3's lack of coverage of the massive demonstration against the regional government's trilingual teaching policy.

Against a background of an inference that IB3 is being used as a government mouthpiece, there now comes a revelation as to quite how much IB3 has been costing. Since it was launched by the Jaume Matas PP government in 2005, it is said to have cost 650 million euros. Though its budget has been cut over the past four years, in 2012 it still received funding of almost 45 million euros (roughly speaking, public funds amount to 95% of its operating revenue). Based on the cost per head of population, IB3 is the second most expensive regional broadcaster in Spain.

The 2012 budget did, however, have to be supplemented. Had it not been, IB3 might have been forced to shut down. And it would appear that ever since its launch, the initial annual budgets have always been supplemented, occasionally in an astronomical fashion. Meantime, the total of 650 million euros has contributed to sustaining a broadcaster which attracts slightly less than 6% of audience share. By comparison, for example, TV3 in Catalonia has a 13.6% audience share, one pulled from a vastly greater population. Valencia's Channel 9 (RTVV) has a lower share, but it also has a larger population to draw on.

Local broadcasting should, in theory, be a "good thing". It is a very good thing if the funds it receives from government and taxpayers then translate into new businesses, more jobs and technological innovation. It is also a very good thing if it advances local culture and is a force for social good. But it is not a very good thing if it is viewed by comparatively small audiences, costs a fortune and becomes a political tool. If IB3 were to close tomorrow, few people, other than those whose jobs depend on it, would do much weeping.

IB3 has also been dogged with suspicions. Those to do with some of that funding. Little more than three years into its existence, the police had started to snoop around, asking questions about payments for studio sets which were some 20% higher than tenders from companies which had missed out.

The regional government, aware of the protests in Valencia, has said that it has no intention of following Valencia's lead in closing IB3. There again, if it is serving a useful purpose for the government, then why would it? And why would it privatise IB3, as has been suggested, if privatisation meant broadcaster independence? But then who would want to buy it? 6% audience share? No thanks.

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