Chile is a country of over 16 million people, lying along the southwest coast of South America. Becoming independent from Spain after 1810, Chile evolved as a republic with strong democratic traditions, until a major coup in 1973. The development of media in Chile has been unique in its region, principally because of the following interregnum of dictatorship from 1973 until 1988, which accelerated the adoption of neo-liberal policies. By the mid-2000s, although it still had a local press duopoly like its neighbors, Chile’s degree of commercialization and of foreign ownership in radio, in free as well as pay television, and in related telecommunication services, notably the Internet, set it apart from the conventional model in the region of local family oligopolies.
Clearly, the dictatorship was a crucial turning point in Chile’s history, including that of the media. Prior to September 11, 1973, when a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the legally elected Unidad Popular government of Salvador Allende, there was a highly politicized press, with five pro-government dailies and the government’s own publishing house, Quimantú, lined up against the three dailies and regional papers of the conservative Edwards family’s El Mercurio group. Centered in the capital and most populous city, Santiago, their papers dated back to the beginning of the twentieth century. As well, the Copesa company had one daily, and there was one other, Clarín.
As for broadcasting, radio had developed as a wholly commercial medium ever since the 1920s, when Chile was the first country in the region to adopt it, but in the 1960s, in order to keep television independent of both commercial and state control, the first licenses were given to universities, and funded jointly by state subsidies and advertising. This system was quite distinct in the region. The General Law of 1970 also set up a national state network and regulatory body.
With the coup, all left-wing newspapers were closed down, and even those of the centerright and right squeezed out of existence. The state television network was seized, and put under direct control of the new regime, and laws were passed in the name of state security to obstruct journalistic investigation and otherwise impose censorship of media content. Scores of journalists were killed or made to disappear, and hundreds sent into exile. As the dictatorship consolidated itself, the press settled into a duopoly of El Mercurio and Copesa, while state subsidies were withdrawn from television, obliging networks to conform to an exclusively advertising-supported system. Before the end of the Pinochet years, the basis was laid for the subsequent development of privately owned broadcast and cable television networks.
Under the constitution with which the dictatorship sought to legitimize itself in 1980, a plebiscite on the junta’s rule was set down for 1988, and as that time approached, some opposition daily newspapers emerged, joining a flourishing alternative media scene. Pinochet was rejected in the plebiscite, ushering in an era of democratic transition under the Concertación, a coalition of pro-democratic parties. However, because the Concertación continued to pursue much the same kind of neo-liberal policies as were introduced by Pinochet, reform-minded Chileans were disillusioned by a failure to achieve the level of democracy and diversity they had expected. For example, the new government gave no support to the progressive dailies, and even online newspapers failed in a market still dominated by the El Mercurio–Copesa duopoly. Media reform was not a priority: it took until 2001 before the former dictatorship’s media controls were superseded by a new press law.
Similarly with television, the Concertación government favored a neo-liberal approach, facilitating a privatized, commercial system, which has come to eclipse the university-based public service model. University channels and the national state network still form part of the Chilean system, however, regulated under the National Council for Television, but all are advertising-based. Even before the end of the dictatorship, broadcast television was in 95 percent of homes, and after 1990 the new government intensified the commercialization of the industry by carrying through the junta’s initiative in permitting two private channels to open up, at the same time allowing cross-media and foreign ownership. These provisions initially enabled Copesa to acquire a network, while Mexican and Venezuelan media conglomerates were able to obtain significant interests in the industry later during the 1990s. In terms of advertising, television overtook print as the premium advertising medium early in the decade, and by 2004 was reaping almost half of total advertising media expenditure. Though radio lags behind even print in its attraction for advertisers, its reach extends into more remote areas than television, and it has undergone a similar internationalization of ownership.
However, the greatest extent of foreign ownership is found in the convergent media of cable and satellite television. Originally there were two cable providers, but the US companies involved in each of them, Liberty Media and UnitedGlobalCom, later merged within the US. In Chile, this created VTR GlobalCom, which in 2006 was claiming 80 percent of Chile’s cable subscribers, as well as being the major Internet service provider. Similarly, at the global level, the once-competing satellite services Sky and DirecTV merged with the Murdoch News Corporation takeover of DirecTV in 2004. The cases of both cable and satellite illustrate how foreign ownership can diminish media diversity, beyond the reach of national control. Both kinds of service tend to cater mainly for upper socio-economic groups, while broadcast television remains more of a mass medium. Nonetheless, pay services achieved over 20 percent market penetration by 2006, the highest in the region, stimulated by the availability of the “triple play” of fixed telephony, broadband internet access, and pay television in the one package. Consequently, there is also a high rate of computer ownership and Internet access.
- Bresnahan, R. (2003). The media and neoliberal transition in Chile: Democratic promise unfulfilled. Latin American Perspectives, 133, 39 – 67.
- Tironi, E., & Sunkel, G. (2000). The modernization of communications: The media in the transition to democracy in Chile. In R. Gunther & A. Mughan (eds.), Democracy and the media: A comparative perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 165 –194.