MADRID, Spain – State-run Spanish television has quietly yanked live coverage of bullfighting from its programming, ending a decades-old tradition of showcasing the national pastime out of concern that the deadly duel between matador and beast is too violent for children.
Television Espanola's first broadcast in 1948 was a bullfight in Madrid. But for the first time in the network's history, none of its channels have shown live fights this season, only taped highlights on a late-night program for aficionados.
In practical terms, the unpublicized decision by the Socialist government is largely symbolic. Of the hundreds of bullfights during the March-October season, state-run TV only tended to broadcast about a dozen. Pay TV channels and stations owned by regional governments are full of live bullfights.
Still, many in the bullfighting world -- and in the conservative opposition -- are livid over what they see as a slight to a cherished piece of Spanish culture.
"We think it is awful," said lawmaker Juan Manuel Albendea. He said that when most Spaniards return from vacation in September, the center-right Popular Party will press Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to restore the broadcasts.
Promoters report 65 million people went to bullfights in Spain last year, and pulling them off free television is unfair to older people or those who cannot afford to go to the ring or watch on cable, Albendea said.
"Bullfighting is a spectacle that is alive, and spectators have a right to see it," he said.
Television Espanola said this week it had nothing against bullfighting. The station noted that it aired the running of the bulls in Pamplona, in which people test their daring by racing bulls through the streets.
But the network said it had to respect a voluntary, industry-wide code that, without specifically mentioning bullfighting, seeks to limit on-screen violence or "sequences that are particularly crude or brutal" from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. to protect children. Bullfights often start at 6 p.m.
Albendea called the argument nonsense, insisting parents, not the government, should decide if children can watch a matador risk a horrific goring while stabbing a snorting half-ton bull to death.
Television Espanola also said it could not afford to buy broadcast rights to bullfights.
But Juan Belmonte, a critic for TV station Canal Sur in Seville, said matadors and promoters were angry that the station had not consulted the bullfighting industry about the possibility of cheaper broadcast rights.
"It has been a totally dictatorial decision," Belmonte said.
Bullfighting is not for everyone, even in Spain. Polls show that few Spaniards go to the ring regularly. And bullfighting impresarios are keenly aware that the crowds are short on young people. Fans tend to be middle-age or older.
While bullfighters may have been national icons decades ago, young Spaniards now tend to idolize stars like singer Beyonce Knowles or soccer great David Beckham.
Still, even if the allure is fading for some, bullfighting is a fixture of Spanish society. At neighborhood bars and cafes, the rhythmic cheers of "olDe!" blaring from TV sets are as common a sound as soccer for Europeans or baseball for Americans.
Animal rights groups denounce bullfighting as cruel, and Barcelona and other cities have declared themselves officially against it, but there is no significant, nationwide movement to ban the tradition. Most Spaniards may not go to bullfights, but they don't want to lose them either.
Belmonte noted that bullfighting on state-run TV was profitable and had decent ratings. A bill with topflight fighters could earn an audience share of up to 24 percent, which is above average, according to Television Espanola.
Belmonte criticized the government for citing money woes in bidding for bullfights when it spends much more for soccer games.
Nor does it make sense, he said, for the government to show support by subsidizing bullfighting schools in Andalusia, then snub the national pastime by wiping live coverage off state TV.
"It is a bit counterproductive," he said.