New Argentina TV Law: Concerns & Expectations

By Lorena Sánchez

The new Law on Audiovisual Communication Services in Argentina creates both expectations and uncertainties in different sectors of the industry. While dominant media holdings lawyers confronted with an imminent reduction of their assets study the fine print of the rule, independent producers expect a higher demand for content arising from the new quota of national production (60 percent) and increased number of new players.

To address this issue, VideoAge interviewed several experts: international consultant Hugo Di Guglielmo, Enrique Masllorens from Channel 7, independent producers Alejandro Suaya from Rosstoc, Pablo Culell from Underground and Luciano Olivera from Zona Comunicación.

The new rule replaces a Broadcasting Act dating from the last military dictatorship (1980). The draft of the new law was sent to the legislative chambers by president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and was approved in the Senate last October after almost 15 hours of debate and strong criticism from the opposition. Although the idea of changing the law and drafts from different political parties have arisen since the re-establishment of democracy in 1984, the final push came after the break-up of relations between the government and multimedia giant “Grupo Clarín” (Canal 13/Artear, Multicanal-Cablevisión, Mitre radio and Clarín newspaper, among others companies owned by the group).

The most controversial issues of the new law, from the point of view of the big media corporations, are fourfold: limited media concentration of licensed over-the-air radio and TV stations and subscription channels; increased amount of TV outlets’ own production; the expansion of the public sector involvement and the opening up the market to NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations. The new law allows NGOs, cooperatives, national universities, indigenous people, etc. to operate broadcasting services).

The new law also creates a regulatory organization that would be mainly staffed by government appointees: Autoridad de Aplicación (Enforcement Authority), which replaces the Comité Federal de Radiodifusión / COMFER (Federal Broadcasting Committee).

Hugo Di Guglielmo, a former programming director of Channel 13/Artear, said that it is difficult to predict the actual impact of the new law. In the Parliament, where the government no longer has the majority, opposition parties may now promote future changes to the law more easily.

Indeed, one of the first legal considerations to limit the reach of the new law came to light last month. A federal judge suspended the application of Articles 41 and 161 of the new law, accepting a precautionary measure requested by Grupo Clarin. Article 41 prevents the transfer of TV licenses and art. 161 sets a one-year deadline for companies to meet the new requirements.

“My impression is that there will be a status quo during the next few months to clarify the issues. After that, if some TV groups feel they must sell channels, inevitably there will be staff downsizing, cost cuttings and reduced productions,” commented Di Guglielmo.

According to Di Guglielmo, the limits on media concentration proposed by the government “is not a bad thing if it aims to prevent monopolies or oligopolies. Nevertheless it can create a smaller TV industry in an era when a certain degree of bigness is needed in order to compete in today’s global marketplace.”

Another problem that Di Guglielmo pointed out is that “if there are more channels looking for content while the size of the TV advertising market remains the same, there will be less money for each station to invest in quality production.” As for the future of independent production companies, Di Guglielmo expects that “in the event of ownership changes, almost all that are currently producing exclusively for existing TV channels would be forced to renegotiate the relationship.”

Enrique Masllorens, assistant manager of Project Development and secretary of the Federal Council of Public Television (CNTV) at state-owned Channel 7, believes that the new law created two scenarios: “The first is that the main channels of Buenos Aires (Capital Federal) will be forced to increase their own productions. This impact will be felt more on Channel 9, which will be forced to reduce the broadcast of foreign programs. In addition, state-owned stations from the country’s interior will have to limit the amount of content that they pick-up and repeat from Buenos Aires’ channels, and thus be forced to develop programs with local producers.
The second scenario is the emergence of new TV ownership entities, such as universities, that will be applying for broadcasting licenses. In conclusion, more local content and increased in-house productions create diversity and plurality of voices.”

At Channel 13/Artear, executives contacted by VideoAge would not comment because “it has already been said too much.”

Before the law was passed, private broadcasting companies spoke extensively against the “K Media Law” (referring to the government of “The Kirchners”, since is current President is the wife of the former President) and tried to make a case for the protection of “freedom of expression.”

Similarly, at America TV, executives did not comment on the implications of the new law because “the issue has many sides and an analysis would be premature given that the actual implementation of the law is only being determined right now.” However, when the bill was being debated in the Senate, Daniel Vila, chairman of América TV (owned by UNO Medios holding, which also controls Supercanal, La Red radio and Uno newspapers, among other companies), publicly said that these new regulations spearheaded by the government “will muzzle society and jeopardize democracy,” equating the future of Argentine television to that of Venezuela.

Claudio Villarruel, Telefé’s director of content, also declined to comments, but told Telam news agency during an awards ceremony in late August, “I find it shameful and anachronistic that a law from a dictatorship that brought so many evil things to this country could be in force after 26 years of democracy.”

Nevertheless, Alejandro Suaya, the managing director of Rosstoc, one of the few Argentine drama producers (Cita a Ciegas, Todos Contra Juan, Tierra Rebelde) that is still independent, said that the new law “is positive for young producers like us, because it will open more possibilities of production for more channels. With the new law, the stations will have to meet a local production quota that will benefit all the producers.”

“Today there are few production opportunities. It is good that the market can develop some new TV players. I say this without knowing how the new law will affect the business model of the channels, but I understand that it may not be good for companies with several stations,” Suaya said. As for the size of the Argentinean TV advertising pie, he said it is small anyway. “But, we compensated for the low advertising revenues with increased international sales of formats and products.”

Luciano Olivera, director of content at Zona Comunicación, another independent non-fiction producer (Mp3 Gira Latina, Fuimos Héroes), said, “The new law will create more and better work because it help develop new TV channels. The high percentage of domestic production demanded by the law is a key factor.”
Pablo Culell, the production and content director at Underground said that changing the law is important because the old one was created during the dictatorship. Underground is a drama production company (Los Exitosos Pells, La Lola, Botineras), 60 percent owned by Sebastián Ortega and Alejandro Corniola and 40 percent by Endemol International.

Culell explained, “The basis of the new law is that it will generate more domestic production and independent producers would have greater opportunities. The scenario will change much for us since we have a relationship with Telefe, but we’re looking forward to working with all channels.”

During a mid-October interview on the TV show Intrusos en el Espectáculo, Adrián Suar, chairman of Pol-ka (55 percent owned by Artear) and artistic director of Artear’s Channel 13, expressed his concerns, stating, “I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that the new law will generate more work as they say.”