TeleSur was a television initiative launched in July 2005 and spearheaded by the government of Venezuela, in cooperation with three other Latin American states – Argentina, Cuba, and Uruguay. The channel was presented by its promoters as “the new television of the south,” with a geopolitical emphasis on the global south reflected in the way they write its very name: teleSUR. While there were some undeniably innovative aspects to this project, its central objectives corresponded to old and traditionally unfulfilled political aspirations for Latin American regional integration on the one hand, and for providing alternatives to the hegemonic ideologies of cultural imperialism on the other. This orientation was clearly reflected in one of the channel’s slogans, often seen on the screen in promotional spots between programs: “Seeing each other we get to know each other, knowing each other we get to respect each other, respecting each other we learn to love each other, and loving each other is the first step toward integration.”
As an actual organization, then, TeleSur had a quite short history at the time of writing. However, the specific motivations behind its formation, beyond the rather general political ideals outlined above, may well be traced to the events of April 2002 in Venezuela, when, after massive yet peaceful demonstrations against the government had resulted in a number of deaths, President Hugo Chávez was briefly removed from power. While the main responsibility for his ousting was commonly attributed to opposing sectors within the military, the mainstream commercial media played an important role, first (and clearly), in galvanizing the growing discontent against Chávez, and second (but not so clearly), in helping to form and publicize the hastily arranged, ill-conceived, and short-lived interim government. A proper discussion of these crucial events in Venezuela’s recent history is well beyond the scope of this article, but there is little doubt that when the President was reinstated after a two-day absence, one of his top priorities was to find ways to check the power of the commercial media system and generate alternatives to them. The passage of the Law for Social Responsibility in Radio and Television in late 2004, and the strong support lent to the TeleSur project leading to its implementation in 2005, can both be seen as practical consequences resulting from the heightened importance granted by the Venezuelan government to media issues.
In 2007, two other countries joined the TeleSur partnership: Bolivia and Nicaragua. Bolivia held only 5 percent of the shares, contrasting with the 46 percent held by Venezuela. Argentina (20 percent), Cuba (19 percent), and Uruguay (10 percent) completed the list of shareholders, although this last country’s official participation underwent a lengthy approval process and still awaited congressional confirmation at the time of writing. Nicaragua’s involvement was limited to the provision of a certain amount of content and the transmission of TeleSur’s signal both over the air and via cable. Expanding the reach of its signal, in fact, was one of the crucial challenges faced by this regional channel; even in Venezuela, it was initially only available via pay-TV until free-to-air transmissions began in February 2007, and even so the broadcast signal barely reached 30 percent of the country’s population at that point in time. During these early stages, TeleSur’s signal was also available, though at times partially and for limited periods, through a wide variety of distribution channels. These ranged from modest community stations in Brazil to the satellite service DirecTV in Venezuela. The common denominator in all cases was a relatively low number of even potential viewers. Besides the effort to place its signal on open TV in Latin American countries, which included a Portuguese version of its transmissions for Brazil, another TeleSur strategy for increasing its reach consisted of plans for making the channel available throughout Europe. To that end, it opened offices with news correspondents in Madrid and London in May 2007.
The difficulty in reaching very large audiences was not only a function of the lack of adequate distribution channels, but had much to do with the attractiveness of the contents offered. While news and information naturally constituted the cornerstone of its programming, TeleSur’s broadest objective was to become a window into Latin America and its peoples, not just from the outside, but mainly so that they could recognize each other and the richness and diversity of their cultures. Thus, it encouraged its viewers to be producers of content as well, and to submit their reports, documentaries, and fictional works for broadcast. Perhaps the biggest challenge for TeleSur, then, would be how to attract large audiences and thus become a successful alternative to the commercial media outlets it criticized, without reproducing the habitual practices of such mass-oriented media.
- Arcila Calderón, C. (2005). Qué es Telesur? [What is Telesur?] Revista Latinoamericana de Comunicación Chasqui, 92, 44–51.