Telesur - "Television of the South"

Washington, DC June 2nd, 2005 -- Politicians in Washington have woken up to the fact that a "Anti-Hegemonic" television channel may be broadcasting to voters in their own back yard. With Hispanic voters making up the majority, or an important block in many constituencies this left leaning TV channel is causing alarm bells to sound, especially in the offices of the Right Wing.

The fledgling hemispherical television network "Telesur" started trials on May 24th, 2005, broadcast by satellite from Caracas, Venezuela. But this is not just another TV Channel bringing the same old repeats available on hundreds more channels, it is an experiment in regional identity and bringing news of South America, from South America, for South America. The channel was conceived and initially funded by President Chavez, the left-wing vocal opponent of President Bush. That has immediately caused the right wing to go on the attack and label the new venture "Pure Left Wing Propaganda". Chavez supporters didn't help their launch by declaring it an "Anti-Hegemonic" anti-US competitor to CNN. As CNN hasn't made significant inroads in the region that appears a poor label to accompany such a breakthrough in regional television.

Telesur broadcast on their first satellite (supplied by China) and are broadcasting the test program. The July 24th launch of live material is slated to have 40% news and include their existing correspondents from around South America, even in Washington, DC. The cycle from September onwards will be 8 hours repeating three times in a 24 hour period.

Many have compared this start up as "El Jazeera" the Spanish version of Al Jazeera the Arab news network. That isn't true as the audience models are completely different and the breakthrough in news reporting created by Al Jazeera occurred twenty years ago in South America. Aram Aharonian the new Director General puts it in perspective during a recent interview:

Aharonian: "It was never said that it will be a news channel. The journalistic ingredient will be strong --- we’re talking of some 45 percent --- but there will be spaces for documentaries, for the various social organizations, for the rescue of memories and traditions, for education and recreation, for the rescue of Latin American cinema."

US critics were quick to label this venture as merely a bigger platform for the ranting and ravings of President Chavez against President Bush, who he sees as being behind the coup that toppled Chavez until his supporters took to the streets.

The Director General of Telesur is Aram Aharonian a 59 year old veteran journalist from Question and Red Voltaire. Although Telesur has great potential it starts with a label that may kill it becoming a legitimate member of the Broadcast Media Club.

At issue in the broadcasting world is that Andres Izarra, the Venezuelan Minister of Information is the President of the company, thereby making this a mouthpiece of Chavez. Initial indications indicate that Aram Aharonian and Jorge Enrique Botero, a Colombian TV Producer, currently selling the idea to the other countries in the region, see this merely as a start-up scenario, and indicate they want Telesur to be independent of all government control.

The controlling board are:

President: Andres Izarra, Minister of Information of Venezuela
Director General: Aram Aharonian
Director: Ana de Escalon, Channel 7, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Director: Beto Almeida, Journalist Guild of Brazil
Director: Ovidio Cabrera: Ex VP RadioTV Cuba
Director of Information: Botero, Columbia

The operational costs are seen as $10 million, of which $2.5 million has been allocated already by Chavez. The network is operating as an affiliate of State controlled Caracas TV 8, with no advertising and funded by money from the government.To date 35 staff have been recruited and are beginning operations from a second floor suite of offices in Caracas. The test signal was activated on May 24th on a new satellite supplied by the Chinese. It appears Channel 8 is supplying all technical services.

President Chavez has ordered all stations throughout Venezuela to carry Telesur details and promotions, hardly a cooperative move for a network needing to borrow and find resources to get off the ground. Criticism is not allowed as four months ago in Chavez's new press laws, anyone who "shows disrespect for," or "offends" the president or his top officials, will face fines and punishment of six to 30 months in prison. This move will block any cooperation with western media, which includes access to media pools in Washington, DC and during major US and international events.

The key to this project is the audience in Argentina, hence the appointment of Ana de Escalon to the Board. Although Argentina is enthusiastic about a Pan American news channel it is very wary about both the content and the production style of the new network. Despite the propaganda from both sides CNN en Es does not figure in the top 30 TV channels for viewers. The Argentine audience is already well served with local quality television.

Brazil is being touted by the Telesur team as a partner, but they don't see them investing in the project. They have a incompatible TV standard, need translation to Portuguese and have a similar plan of their own.

Cuba sees it as a means of airing Cuban documentaries to a bigger audience, but without cash they can only offer product and technicians. The inclusion of Cuba in the project has all but disqualified it for serious consideration in the eyes of Washington, DC.

But is it fair to dismiss Telesur as a left wing propaganda channel to watch when the paint is dry, and the traffic lights stay on blinking red. That depends on the guiding forces during the first few months. Television audiences are very fickle and will dismiss a channel, or program from just a few minutes viewing. They demand slick production, great graphics, and quality sets. The anchors can make or break a network, and the content has to fit in with the existing eye candy being produced.

The first five seconds are most important, then within a minute or so interest must be such that the viewer stays with the program.

But what about this potential audience. This is where it becomes interesting. The satellite has been reported as having beams for South America, North America and Europe. TeleSur if it can be guided away from rhetoric can become a huge success. If Telesur can be guided to be a pioneering Latino network and not an "Anti - Hegemonic" project then it could be as big as CNN. By the time Telesur reaches full speed President Bush and President Chavez will be gone and telesur could be the positive media legacy for the growing population of South and Central America, as well as the expatriate population in North America.

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