MADRID — Made by the Almodovars’ El Deseo and Mediapro, RTVE’s upcoming “Mujeres” (Women) reads like a TV drama version of Pedro Almodovar’s just-released movie “Volver.” In a rumbustious barrio, Irene, a recent widow, holds down a job, nurses a rickety mother, oversees the family bakers and consoles her separated daughter.

Social femme entertainment like BocaBoca’s “Con dos tacones,” about mature women forging new lives, and “Mujeres” are classic recent RTVE fare.

What RTVE programs, and how, is no small matter. Its E1.54 billion ($1.8 billion) 2005 budget ranks the national pubcaster with pay TV giant Sogecable as Spain’s biggest TV company.

It colors Spain’s TV culture. Terrestrial pubcasters commanded a 43% Spanish market share last year, and RTVE took most of that: mainstream TVE-1 with 19.6%, culture-skewed La2 with 5.8%. (Regional pubcasters cumed 17.6%).

Under director general Carmen Caffarel, appointed after the PSOE socialist election victory in March 2004, RTVE has honed its pubcaster cred with TVE-1 primetime event-docus including Discovery Channel’s “Homo Sapiens,” co-produced with Spain’s Sagrera.

Last November, RTVE launched kids channel Clan TV, bringing much-missed original programming to Spain’s nascent digital terrestrial TV market. New slots include TVE-1 debate showcase “59 Seconds” and current affairs program “Enfoque.”

More than other broadcasters, RTVE supports Spanish films.

Per Manuel Perez Estremera, director of TVE, RTVE’s TV division, TVE is buying 60 Spanish films for 2005-’06, including “Volver,” Manuel Gutierrez Aragon’s “Virgin Rose” and Joaquin Oristrell’s “No es lo mismo.”

Favoring low-budget pics, TVE plows around $41 million to $43 million a year into Spanish films.

Launched as TVE in 1956, support for Spanish culture courses through RTVE’s veins.

“RTVE has been a hothouse for talent that went into theater and films. Under (dictator Francisco) Franco, La2, then TVE-2, was a refuge, encouraging low-budget alternative drama,” says Eduardo Garcia Matilla, prexy of Corporacion Multimedia.

As historian Manuel Palacio notes, the results — made by left-leaning directors such as Claudio Guerin Hill, who stunned with “Richard III” in 1967 — rank among the most original TV ever made in Spain.

One innovative TVE director, Pilar Miro, ran RTVE from 1986 to 1989, tapping celebrated cineastes for multiple high-end socially conscious dramas, including Gonzalo Suarez’s “Los pazos de Ulloa” (1985) and Mario Camus’ “La forja de un rebelde” (1990). Another TVE drama stalwart, Antonio Mercero, made hot sitcom forerunner “Verano azul.”

RTVE isn’t just upscale fare. It can’t be. Unusually in Europe, Spain lacks a license fee. RTVE lives off advertising and state-guaranteed credit, accruing an $8.9 billion deficit. Also, unlike PBS in the U.S., Euro pubcasters’ mission is to reach wide audiences.

“La2 targets a more demanding public, TVE-1 offers competitive, family fare,” says Pablo Carrasco, TVE director, programming and content. He cites three examples: celeb dancing skein “Mira quien baila” (27.5%), retro serial “Remember When” (27.1%) and comedy sketch “Cruz y Raya” (24.0%)

Some of RTVE’s more populist programming has hit pay dirt.

The first, the 2001-02 season of reality talent show “Operacion triunfo,” a Spanish format spawning BBC’s “Fame Academy,” averaged 44.2% audience share.

Attending to different audiences, Carrasco has mixed things up on TVE-1 primetime, including Tuesday’s soul-searching yakker “El loco de la colina.”

But veering upscale, “Off Cinema,” another new venture, provides an auteur pic showcase — rare among Spanish broadcasters.

Per Carrasco, films, though costlier, will deliver auds in a country where access to pay TV (and specialized film channels) remains low at just 25.5% of households. And Spaniards are film fanatics. The country’s cinemagoing is one of Europe’s highest, with 2.9 admissions per capita in 2005.

But besides giving the people what they want, RTVE has been a mirror, motor and mentor of change, salving national traumas.

All public television nets practice this. But RTVE has done more than most, given Spain’s dramatic, dizzying transformation. When RTVE launched 50 years ago, Spain was a dingy, rural land, ruled by a pseudo-fascist dictator, just 17 years clear of a horrific civil war. Franco’s death in 1975 was the cue for change.

“Of all the media, television has played the biggest role transforming Spanish society since 1975,” comments TVE secretary general Javier Martin Dominguez.

RTVE has captured age-defining moments: Franco’s death was announced on TVE. Six years later its cameras caught live an attempted military coup when soldiers stormed Spain’s parliament, the Cortes.

All this is reflected in RTVE fare. Watercooler serial “Cuentame” portrays a humble ’70s family, recording moments including its first TV set and car, strikes, hippies, demonstrations, infidelities.

Tearjerking telenovela “Amar en tiempos revueltos” charts a woman painter’s marriage, her true love frustrated by civil war. Its title, “Love in Agitated Times,” reads like a recipe for RTVE programming, reassuring Spaniards over 50 extraordinary, wrenching years.