Chief’s exit raises questions on RTVE’s independance

Public sector TV took a step backward in Spain this month when Luis Fernandez resigned as president of giant pubcaster Radio Television Espanola.

He will be replaced by 81-year-old Alberto Oliart, a minister in various centrist governments between 1977-82, who has no media experience and admits he rarely watches TV.

Ever diplomatic, Fernandez attributed his Nov. 14 departure to “strictly personal reasons.”

His exit raises big questions, however, about the political independence and social relevance of RTVE under a government which — in an irony that has not escaped the media — approved legislation just three years ago supposedly guaranteeing both.

In 2006 a law established a six-year-term for RTVE presidents, who were to be chosen by parliament not government, and introduced a mixed financing formula for RTVE of both subsidies and advertising revenue. RTVE had been principally financed by advertising since its launch in 1956.

The new rationale was to “guarantee independence … and establish a financing model allowing RTVE to fulfill its public service role with efficacy, quality and public recognition.”

Fernandez took over as president in November 2006 against this backdrop and is regarded as one of RTVE’s most successful toppers.

The career journalist and TV producer came to RTVE after stints at blue-chip media companies Cadena Ser radio network and broadcast network Telecinco.

He also served as managing director of Spanish film and TV production arm Plural Entertainment and Promofilm in New York and Miami from 2001-05, exec producing “A Day Without a Mexican” and Univision’s “Al filo de la ley.”

Under Fernandez, the pubcaster’s TV arm, TVE, saw its newscasts, the most watched in Spain, finally achieve independence from political meddling.

“Fernandez wrestled a civil and political consensus about the need for a certain ideological neutrality,” says Eduardo Garcia Matilla, at audience research company Multimedia Corp.

Fernandez also transformed core channel TVE-1 from a third-rating also-ran into the most watched channel in Spain.

The audience revival has been driven by primetime dramas and light entertainment, both holdovers (“Remember Me,” “Mira quien baila”) and rookies (“Aguila Roja,” “La senora”).

Meanwhile, TVE’s kids’ service Clan TV and news web 24 Hours are among Spain’s top digital terrestrial TV channels.

RTVE has revitalized its international film sales division with pickups such as Mateo Gil’s “Blackthorn” and Bigas Luna’s “DD Hollywood.”

Boosted by Fernandez, RTVE’s website is among the half-dozen most-visited in Spain.

He has achieved all this while shedding around a third of the pubcaster’s 9,000-plus workforce through an early-retirement program. Now RTVE faces tough challenges without him as the government changes direction on its 2006 reforms.

In May, and without consulting Fernandez, the government announced it was nixing advertising on RTVE’s channels from 2010, making the pubcaster nearly totally dependent on public coin. An upcoming general audiovisual law will curb RTVE’s capacity to compete for high-profile content.

Three days after Fernandez’s resignation, commercial broadcaster Telecinco announced it, not RTVE, would produce the next season of celebrity talent contest “Mira quien baila.”

RTVE’s 2010 budget, minus ad revenue, is still being thrashed out. In operating terms it looks likely be 10% to 12% down — some E100 million ($150 million) — from 2009.

RTVE’s “future is a large question,” says Garcia Matilla. “It faces the most complicated period in its history.”

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