Senate approves reforms broadcasting sector

Argentina’s Senate on Saturday approved contentious reforms of the broadcasting sector that will break up private networks and give the state greater control over the airwaves — a move critics say will restrict freedom of the press.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, championed the reform to diversify voices in the media, objecting to the influence on public opinion of Grupo Clarin, Grupo Uno Medios and other congloms. Nestor Kirchner has attacked Clarin, which has interests in broadcasting, cable as well as film and TV production and newspapers, for biased reporting that he says undermined his popularity and that of his wife, now at its lowest since he took power in 2003.

The politician came second in a mid-term congressional election this year, costing his party control of both houses when the new term starts on Dec. 10.

It’s not the first such assertion.

Former president Fernando de la Rua blamed TV host-impresario Marcelo Tinelli for belittling him on his popular variety program, an event that led to the president’s early resignation in 2001.

The reform “is necessary because Clarin has too much power,” said Federico MacDougall, a business professor at the U. of Belgrano in Buenos Aires.

The reform divvies up licenses evenly between private companies, the state and not-for-profit groups and requires the purchase of more programming from within the local broadcasting area. That makes it harder for programs produced in Buenos Aires to be aired nationally.

The licensing restrictions mean the state will have the only national network — Canal 7 — which has been gaining viewership thanks to the state takeover of rights for hugely popular professional soccer from a Clarin-backed venture this year.

This will shrink networks as it will be harder to recoup production spending by airing a program over several group-owned channels.

“There has to be some concentration for media companies to make a profit,” said Hugo Di Guglielmo, a media consultant in Buenos Aires.

If the divestment leads to a cut in programming prices as broadcasters can afford less, it is likely that indie producers — Buenos Aires is a big production hub in Latin America — will step up exports to cover costs and find profits.

Early this year, Fox picked up remake rights for “The Rebels” out of Argentina.

Clarin is expected to take legal action to stall selling off assets on the grounds that putting a timeframe on divestment will drive down prices for the assets.

Whether the groups find buyers will depend on whether the new licensing rules are clear so there is no threat of loss at the discretion of the government, MacDougall said.

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