Photo: Diario La Región

Maduro Is Quietly Rebuilding the State TV Propaganda Apparatus

Behind the end of DirecTV in Venezuela, there’s a 21st century dictatorship desperate to recover a lost channel to spread its message

The first punch didn’t land: on March 13th, the Simón Bolívar satellite drifted out of orbit and turned into space garbage. One of the consequences? The state-owned dish network, CANTV Satelital, went out of business, and around 2 million people were left without service. But two months later, the state’s propaganda machine took a jab to the face with the departure of DirecTV, on May 19th.

The state propaganda depended on DirecTV, that’s why there were only shy attempts to restore the CANTV project. On March 24th, Sibci (Sistema Bolivariano de Comunicación e Información, chavismo’s media system) moved his programming package to the Intelsat 14 satellite on the C-Band, where it’s easier for conventional TVs to pick up. This package included all the networks and community channels, plus 13 radio stations, all controlled by the Maduro regime.

“We just weren’t paying attention,” one TV executive told Caracas Chronicles. “We got confident because of how robust the DirecTV platform was. We halted investments, stopped expansion, and now we have to deal with the consequences.” Only a third of the transmitters appropriated by TVes in the RCTV raid are working. Globovisión never expanded its coverage beyond Caracas and Maracaibo, and the antennas of TV station Televen have been robbed so many times that they stopped trying to replace some of them. 

The Revolution Needs to Be Televised

The Maduro regime’s  first response to DirecTV’s departure was “childish”, according to industry executives. “They knew they couldn’t get the signal up again. This wasn’t a radio station. But the call for calm was to buy them time,” said a former DirecTV consultant. And he’s right. 

Maduro’s regime needs television, at least to be there even if people aren’t watching. It became evident with the arrival of the Iranian oil tankers in late May: the “celebration” on the state’s TV station, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), lasted only 20 minutes. They knew that, even in a quarantine, people wouldn’t tune in. They were either watching Netflix or enjoying the latest titles from the local quemaíto pirate kiosk on DVD and Blu-Ray.  Frozen for the gazillionth time if they had kids. 

Maduro’s regime needs television, at least to be there even if people aren’t watching.

A week later, pieces were moving. Sibci uploaded a new TV package to Intelsat 35, this time in the Ku Band, a more modern band used for satellite TV companies and very prone to rain interference, like DirecTV was. While Venezuelans were tweeting #DirecTVLibre, Maduro’s regime was laying the foundation for a new TV provider with all the Venezuelan channels, plus China’s CCTV and Russia’s RT.  One exception in the package, though: Globovisión is missing.

“They’re going to have a hard time trying to use DirecTV’s SAT (the control center in Caracas, seized after the Supreme Tribunal’s order of “reestablishing the TV service”). And if they do, they won’t be able to use it at full capacity,” explained the former consultant. Building a new infrastructure can take time, and solving how to use part of the seized equipment can be a shortcut to a new network. In the meantime, the regime’s legal efforts are blocking every backdoor possible: on Monday, June 8th, the TSJ banned importing DirecTV decoders, except if permitted by the ad hoc board named by the regime (instead of the company’s board) presided by none other than the director of Conatel and Ministry of the Office of the Presidency (and 2017 OFAC sanctioned), Jorge Elieser Márquez.

Resurrecting TDA

One missing piece of the puzzle is the Digital Terrestrial Television project, spearheaded by the late Hugo Chávez in 2009 under the name Televisión Digital Abierta (TDA). A corruption scandal involving the purchase of decoders limited its reach, and only 400,000 of the approximately 700,000 devices purchased or assigned by the government are still active. But the pieces are still there: the control centers, the multiplex transmitters, the antennas. And newer TV models have a Digital TV tuner integrated. 

There’s also another potential ray of light for the regime: On May 30th, Sibci uploaded to the Argentinian satellite Arsat2 a third package, including three cellular TDA channels (VTV, TVes, and teleSUR). The same day, Science and Technology Minister Gabriela Jiménez tweeted about the TDA project and the TDA channels available in Táchira, Bolívar, and Zulia, states that are among the most affected after DirecTV’s departure. Blackouts have rendered many transmitters useless, and only the Galaxy satellite (of DirecTV’s exclusive use) used to reach remote settlements in the south of the country.

All the signs suggest that, before the end of the year, the Maduro regime will have a portion of his TV propaganda apparatus up and running. And this time, there won’t be much else to choose from, especially if they can replace DirecTV in those areas where there’s no fiber optics to set up regular cable.