CARACAS, Venezuela — It has come to my attention that despite the current scrutiny of Venezuela's unstable social and political climate, little has been written about the event that started it all. In fact, the shouting and violence that has been broadcast around the world started with a quiet fade to black.
By noon, our crew was not so comfortably seated in our "office."
We had arrived at the RCTV station late morning on Sunday, May 27 — for them, D-Day. Unless there was some Supreme Court or presidential intervention, their 53-year-old broadcast would be off the air — permanently — by midnight. About 100 supporters surrounded the front entrance (a number that would multiply in the coming hours) and people were coming and going from inside, prompting the television station's management to tighten the building's security.
The heightened security left two of us — myself and Mike Amor, our editor, transmission engineer and all-around Renaissance Man — without security passes, while correspondent Adam Housley, cameraman Keith Railey, and our fixer Jose were allowed to go to the media room. Mike and I were given two metal chairs and an electrical outlet in the corner of the lobby and were politely told to "stay."
After producing and editing in the 2' by 3' corner for an hour, the managers took pity on us as we were given extra security passes to join our crew upstairs. As we walked to the elevator, we skirted a large royal blue curtain, like that which you might find on a large Broadway stage. Peering through a slit in the cloth, we saw a huge studio that was clearly used as a sound stage for some of RCTV's programming. Bleachers and chairs had been set up and several people were milling about the floor.
Upstairs, the media room was really a small conference room with a long table and a few laptops. In one corner, a television was set to RCTV. Once we set up and started commuting back and forth between outside live shots and inside editing, we noticed an increased amount of traffic flowing into the sound stage behind the blue curtain. Actors, journalists and management dressed in RCTV T-shirts all filed into the studio until it appeared that the entire network was packed in.
So began RCTV's last live broadcast. From the afternoon until just before midnight, those network employees sat, knelt, stood, and spoke to revolving hosts about what was happening; how they felt, what the network's next step was, and how grateful they were for the overwhelming support. The live show was interspersed with retrospectives of past programming: favorite moments in their telenovelas (soap operas), exciting news broadcasts, and special event coverage that helped earn the network its 80 percent popularity ratings. Many times, the directors showed split screens of the retrospectives and the reactions of the actors/journalists/managers involved. There was a lot of laughter ... but, there were more tears.
Hours passed and still the congregation in the studio clung to hope. The general manager, Marcel Granier, held a live press conference in another studio and spoke of continuing the fight for freedom of speech — not with violence, but with strong action. In the sound stage, the employees vowed to keep working, even after they were off the air. They denounced the government and its decision to pull their license. They prayed.
Then, at about 11:54 p.m., all of RCTV stood together and sang Venezuela's National Anthem. Employees who still had to work and could not join their colleagues watched the live feed and cried. Stationed in the lobby to await any midnight chaos, I caught the eye of one of the women working the reception desk, watching the television near the door. She looked away, trying to hide her red-rimmed eyes and mascara-stained cheeks.
I walked outside and trained my handicam on the big screen television that had been rigged for the hundreds who were holding vigil outside. At 11:58 p.m., they played video from a huge march in Caracas — likely one of those in support of RCTV. And then, the screen faded to black, just as promised by Chavez's government at midnight.
The crowd outside stood in shock, hoping for two whole seconds that maybe — just maybe — this was a technical glitch, a director who missed a cue or a tech who fell asleep at the control board. Then suddenly, the screen went white, and big, primary colored graphics announced "Tves" had taken over RCTV's signal. The crowd groaned — some people even screamed — as the new state-run network took to air. At 12:20 a.m., Tves (which stands for Televisora Venezolana Social) began its first broadcast. A huge choir of men, women and children wearing jackets made from the Venezuelan flag, sang their version of the national anthem, blended with video of the country's valleys, mountains and beaches.
It is now several days later, and it is clear that Tves is exactly the kind of bland, safe programming that makes private networks cringe. Most of the programming I have seen is one big infomercial for Venezuela and Chavez. Shows depict poor Venezuelans, happily prancing across the screen, despite the fact they look like they have been living in a hovel or the slums for years. Beautiful women stroll on the beaches, smiling in their bikinis and sandals. Educational programs are seemingly geared to 7-year-olds — for instance, having watched Tves, I feel certain that I can adeptly shave the kernels off of an ear of corn. And all of the original programming looks to have been shot with a home video camera, making my herky-jerky shooting look like award-winning videography. There is a constant underlying sound track that Sesame Street might want to look into for copyright infringement.
So yes, now the evil empire that RCTV was surreptitiously building is gone. But isn't it curious that not only has their audience not gone to Tves, but the number of viewers of the last remaining private opposition network, **Globovision, has skyrocketed in less than a week?
**Globovision only airs in a fraction of the country. RCTV was the only major private opposition network left in Venezuela before it lost its license.
Nora Zimmett is a general assignment producer based in Los Angeles. She started at FOX in 2003 as an associate producer. She has covered Colombia's Civil War, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and, most recently, the latest Ballistic Missile test aboard the USS Lake Erie.