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Portugal: a media story

Eunice Goes
18 May 2001

In Portugal there was a time when public service broadcasting delivered good service: programmes for all segments of the population, good news bulletins with extended political coverage, cultural programmes, films and the odd costume drama from the BBC.

The launch of two private channels in the early 1990s changed all that. In the beginning the change was not so obvious. One of the private channels -- SIC -- started with a very good and punchy news coverage. There were programmes of political analysis and debate, "reportage" that made us forget about those horrible chat-shows that filled most of Saturday nights.

But then SIC realised that it needed to make money, to get more publicity. Then the dumbing-down started. The serious news was replaced by populist and parochial little dramas. On top of that, SIC decided to fill all the gaps between news bulletins with either Brazilian soap-operas (telenovellas) or trashy chat shows of doubtful taste. SIC was so successful in the ratings that the other private channel, TVI, and the public channels soon followed suit.

The high moment of the dumbing down took place when TVI opened the 9 o'clock news bulletin with the latest news from the Portuguese version of "Big Brother". Often, the chattering classes have heated discussions about the need to regulate broadcasting. But the more frequent buzz is about the irrelevance of public TV: If they're providing a public service because they're following the market, what's the point of subsidising public broadcasting?, says the new conventional wisdom. In the end nothing happens. In a typical Portuguese reaction, everybody recognizes the symptoms and knows the diagnosis, but the cure? Let someone else deal with it.

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