Two die in street protests after Chavez pulls web

A deadly battle has begun to keep Venezuela’s oldest broadcaster on the air.

On Jan. 25, violent protests against the temporary suspension of Radio Caracas Television, ordered by President Hugo Chavez’s government, left two students dead and 20 police injured in Merida, while peaceful protests occurred in other cities.

This is the second time RCTV has had to fight to stay on the airwaves. In 2007, it was forced to switch to cable and the Internet when the Chavez government refused to renew its broadcast license for allegedly supporting the opposition.

Once again, the struggle has broadened to issues of freedom of the press and free speech, with students leading the protests.

This time around, the government has accused RCTV and five other cable nets of defying new regulations that require producers to register with the National Telecommunications Commission, the state-run telco regulator also known as Conatel. They must also carry all government programming, including Chavez’s marathon speeches.

Payboxes airing 70% imported programming, i.e. international channels, are exempt.

RCTV contends that its cable channel, RCTV Intl., meets the 70% requirement so it refused to air government programming on Jan. 23.

By midnight, cable and satellite TV providers had dropped RCTV Intl. plus Ritmo Son, Momentum, America TV, American Network and TV Chile to comply with orders from Conatel.

At stake are the jobs of 1,500 RCTV employees whose salaries cannot be sustained by Internet advertising alone.

“I have been fighting to calm our employees, investors and shareholders,” says RCTV director general Marcel Granier.

RCTV has already had to reduce its output of telenovelas to three a year, compared to six to seven in its heyday.

Founded in 1953, RCTV frequently led in the ratings through its mix of telenovelas, lively talkshows and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

The beleaguered paybox has filed an injunction in the Supreme Court but is not expecting a speedy resolution. Frequent power outages in Caracas mean that courts open only two or three times a week.

Some cable and satellite TV subscribers have hit back at the operators, demanding a cut in their monthly fees.

Eduardo Stigol, prexy of InterCable, the largest cable operator in Venezuela, doesn’t see this as a threat. “We haven’t lost a single subscriber nor do I think the pay TV industry will lose any as a result of our dropping RCTV Intl.,” he says.

Cable TV penetration is officially 30% but some observers say it’s probably triple that if you include illegal connections. DirecTV’s subscriber base grew to 1 million not long after RCTV stopped broadcasting on its terrestrial frequency.

While Chavez is oblivious to domestic and international pressure, Granier remains optimistic that RCTV will survive. “With imagination and creativity, we will find a solution just as we did in 2007,” he says.

Meanwhile, the new rule could discourage Nickelodeon Latin American and Sony Pictures Television from continuing to produce in Venezuela. They co-produced the first season of hit tween telenovela “Isa, I Luv U” in Venezuela. Last year, before the new ruling, they moved production of the second season to Colombia ostensibly because of Sony’s partnership with Teleset, 50% owned by SPT.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more