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TV in Spain

I have always been a heavy TV watcher and I have spent a great part of my life watching television. This is something I am not very proud of but I do not regret either. Through TV, I have watched so many hours of sitcoms, news, cartoons, movies, talk shows, commercials and many other type of shows. But in some moments of my life, television became more than a simple storyteller or a way of entertainment. At some points, I considered television a way of getting essential information. I live in Spain. In a small country, anything that happens becomes a major concern that affects all of us and make us feel closer. For this assignment I looked back and tried to choose those moments when an important event made me stay in front of the TV set for the basic need of information. Moments when I felt part of the story covered by the media based on the simple fact that I was part of the audience. When I had to be watching TV as a social, moral or political obligation or even as a way to show my support.

My first memory about a big event broadcast by television was the only coup d'état in the modern democratic era in Spain. It was February 23, 1981. I was five years old at the time, and if I know the date it is because of later references to that event. I barely remember what happened that day, and at the time I was not aware of the consequences that such event could have produced in my life. It was the beginning of the 1980s and my main goals in life were to have fun in kindergarten and make constructions faster than my brother. I was in the last year of what we called "preescolar" before elementary school. I remember it was in the evening, around 7 or 8 I was at home with my mother and brother. We were watching something on TV, I think it was Barrio Sesamo, the Spanish version of Sesame Street,(at that time there were only two networks, owned by the government, and one of them only worked for a few hours during the evening). The next thing I vaguely remember was a special report about something in the congress. The image was the congress completely empty (later, I learned that it was not empty, people were hidden under the seats), and a man in a military uniform was holding a gun and shooting. I saw my mom running to the telephone to call my dad, who was working. I did not pay a lot of attention, but I felt something weird was going on. That night, I stayed up late, in normal days the nightly newscast was the sign of going to bed. That night the newscast was substituted by what we call in Spain an "Institutional speech," an address by our king. The king, Juan Carlos I, was dressed in a military uniform talking to the nation for about an hour. I remember my parents getting calls from all our relatives and hearing words unpronounceable about politics. I think I never knew what happened that night. My only memories were images from the TV set and my family around the TV set. But, I guess I started to relate important events based on its media coverage and the way that it brings everybody together around the TV.

Many years passed before I experienced a situation where television became again something essential. The big event I experienced through television was something that I also experienced by myself. It was the third week of 1994, I was living in Hemet, a small city in Riverside County in California. I was a senior in high school, participating in an exchange program. It was a Monday and we did not have classes because of the semester break. At five in the morning, I was awaked by an earthquake that measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. I did not have time to react. The shock was over by the time I reached the door of my room. Five minutes after that, all my host family was gathered around the TV set drinking chocolate and watching the news. I remember watching the morning news and seeing all the anchors with no makeup on, some of them wearing t shirts and with no lighting in the studio. They repeated over and over the only news that they had: " It is an earthquake." For the next twelve hours we had the TV on to know about the aftershocks, the people injured and so forth. I remember how for the whole day we watched for hours all the empty highways, the fires, and the buildings that were destroyed. No matter what channel we switched to, there were the same images. I felt that what I was watching was really far from me, as if I were in Spain watching the news about the U.S. I could not believe that those highways were the same ones I drove through with my friends a few weeks ago to go shopping in Venice. Also, I remember that when I finally got a call from my parents, they were tuned to CNN International and were watching the exact same images that I was watching on CNN in California. They were thousands of miles away and they had the same information that I did. There was no difference between being just minutes away from the epicenter and being on the other side of the world. Television was again getting us together to get informed of something that was affecting us in a very direct way.

The next big event that gathered all my family as well as the rest of my country in front of the TV was a social event. It was March 18th, 1995. It was a Saturday. At 11:30 a.m., in Seville, the older daughter of the Royal family, the Infanta Elena, was getting married. It was the first royal wedding in Spanish territory in almost 80 years. Due to the affection for and loyalty to the royal family in Spain, this event created high expectations. Back then, I was a sophomore in St. Louis University in Madrid. It was a three day weekend, a "puente" (bridge) as we call it in Spain. I was going home and had to go to Seville to catch a bus to get home. There were no tickets for the AVE, the high speed train that had been running for only two years in Spain. The only ticket I f could find was for that Saturday at 7:00 a.m. (I was hesitant to take that train because my plans for that morning was to stay in front of the television).The train was full of people who were going to Seville to see the wedding. These people were spending $100 to see, for a few minutes, the bride getting into the cathedral! I got home around 11:30 a.m. when the ceremony was starting. Five of the six networks that we had at the time were covering the event and all of them were showing the same images provided by the government network, owner of the rights to distribute the images of the event (the sixth network, a pay channel, was showing some TV movie). What I remember was driving home and seeing everything empty. There were no people, no cars, and all the businesses were closed. I had never seen anything like it before, not even in the final game of the soccer league, something sacred for Spaniards. Everybody was home watching the wedding. If you missed it, you would not have anything to talk about for the next two weeks. I watched the whole ceremony with my father and my emotional, ready-to-cry mother. I kept them informed of the latest gossip, since on the bus I took that morning I met Paloma Ferre, a reporter from Telemadrid, the local Madrid station. She had covered the wedding the day before and was going to my city to visit her brother. In that 60 minute trip I learned about how the network covering the wedding used actors for rehearsal, how the media paid over $60,000 for a balcony in front of the cathedral, and what were the latest jokes about the wedding night of the royal couple. My family and I watched TV for the rest of the day. After the wedding, they broadcast the banquet, the reception and all the following celebrations. We felt that we had to watch everything because the wedding was not only part of our nation's history but also our own personal history.

The last current event that shocked me and made me, and the whole country, stay in front of the TV for three consecutive days happened last summer. On July 12, Miguel A. Blanco, a young local politician from the Basque country, was kidnapped by ETA, the independent terrorist group for the Basques. Their goal was to force the government to transfer all the prisoners from this group in one jail in the Basque territory (our government distributes the prisoners all over the country as a pressure method and also to break their internal hierarchy). They announced that if the government did not accept, Miguel A. Blanco would be shot in the head in 2 days. In a few hours, the whole country was protesting in the streets against the bloody practices followed by these terrorists. During the following 48 hours, the media and specially television played a key role in getting all the community together and being a speaker for all of us. TV networks canceled their shows and used the whole programming schedule as an open forum for everybody to express their feelings about what was happening and ask for the freedom of the politician. The TV networks signed an agreement stating that they would not compete for the audience during the time they spent covering the reaction and the investigations and they would help and support each other. Also, they substituted their logos on the screen for a blue ribbon that is the symbol Spaniards use to show their disagreement with the terrorist group. The deadline was Saturday, July 13th, at 4 p.m. For the entire time, I was in front of the TV with my family. Sometimes there were periods of 30 or 45 minutes when the networks only showed a picture of this person that was held hostage. This silence was present not only in the TV set, but in my house, in the street, in the entire country.

During that weekend the whole country was united, and I think it was possibly thanks to television. This has been one of the few times, I should say the only time, that I was moved not only by the event itself but also by the media coverage. The main goal was not economic; television networks were trying to really communicate what was happening without worrying about their own interests. Competition among the networks disappeared for the benefit of the viewers. News anchors were visibly touched and some of them could not control their tears. On Saturday afternoon, all the networks stopped their programming and for five minutes they only showed the blue ribbon and kept silence. I remember how, after two days watching TV, I fell sleep for a few minutes. When I woke up, it was 4:45 p.m. Only 45 minutes passed the deadline and I remember hearing from TV that the body of Miguel A. Blanco had been found in a curb with two shots in the head. My reaction was confused at the time. It was a mix of hate, powerlessness, disappointment and skepticism. I could not believe that everything we did during those three days was worth nothing.

It is very hard for me to draw a conclusion about all these experiences. Actually, they do not have many things in common. But, if there is something that all these stories share is the ability and the power of gathering not only me and my family but the whole nation in front of the TV. I wonder whether the media coverage made them seem important to me or were they really important enough to deserve such coverage. Something surprising for me is that I remember those moments really well, even the small, insignificant details. I guess that during those moments that are special, tragic or memorable, we see our lives in a completely different way, and we pay more attention to those small things that in any other situations we would have been taken for granted. All these experiences provided me with a strong feeling such as pride (in the case of the wedding), fear (in the case of the earthquake) or a sense of injustice (when the hostage died shot in the head). I think that these are the kinds of experiences we think of when we try to visualize abstract concepts as consternation, disgust or powerlessness. Also during these experiences, television helped me to participate in the process, instead of being a mere viewer, as I usually am . In these cases, television became more humane and down to earth. Based on these experiences, I believe that TV, although mostly of the time is oriented to get economic profits, can be really beneficial to us if used in the right way.

October 22, 1997

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