Venezuela's Chavez-Backed TV Eyes U.S. Markets

Telesur has expanded to 17 Latin American countries in its first year on the air, and now the TV station financed by Venezuela and four other nations is eyeing U.S. markets, officials said Thursday.

Telesur, which marked its one-year anniversary Thursday, is touted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as an upstart that can offer an alternative to what he calls the Washington-friendly coverage of media giants such as CNN.

Despite obstacles presented by highly competitive U.S. markets, Telesur hopes to make inroads in Hispanic communities in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, New York, New Jersey and Florida, said Telesur president and former Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra.

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"The whole process for Telesur has been quite uphill because we are an alternative media outlet," Izarra said at a news conference, citing corporate media control over distribution.

"We continue advancing and we have not lost hope," he said.

In the United States, Telesur would be going up against established Spanish-language broacasters including Univision Communications Inc. and Telemundo.

The Venezuelan government holds a 51 percent stake in Telesur, with Argentina owning 20 percent, Cuba 14 percent, Uruguay 10 percent and Bolivia 5 percent, Izarra said.

According to Izarra, Telesur has grown to reach an estimated 2.5 million cable subscribers in 17 countries, and operates 10 bureaus across the Americas including one in Washington.

Chavez, a frequent critic of Washington's foreign policy, has cast Telesur as an alternative to established broadcasters which he has accused of "bombarding" Latin Americans with pro-U.S. coverage.

Telesur has taken a decidedly critical stance toward the U.S. government in its news broadcasts, which are frequent among a programming lineup that includes documentaries and films.

During its first 12 months, the network has interviewed Colombian rebel leaders and ideological allies of Chavez such as former Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala. Telesur has also inked a deal with Qatar-based Arabic network Al-Jazeera to share content and cooperate in newsgathering.

The station's $9.3 million budget — mostly from Venezuela, with contributions from the other governments owning a stake — has funded programming that features public service announcements instead of commercials and coverage emphasizing Latin American integration, poverty, and other issues in line with Chavez's leftist agenda.

Izarra also said the former chief of Venezuela's national elections council, Jorge Rodriguez, has signed on to host a new opinion show on Telesur.