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Mexico's Reality TV Presses Some Hot Buttons

True-crime shows are wildly popular. Efforts to suppress them, critics say, amount to covering up a national epidemic.

July 10, 1999|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — There are cop-shooters, baby-stealers, wife-beaters and thugs of every stripe. They brandish pistols, knives and, in the case of one cross-dressing rapist, a tube of pink lipstick.

Such are the unlikely stars of "Duro y Directo" ("Tough and Direct"), the latest in a series of Mexican television tabloids that have become hits through their gritty coverage of this country's crime crisis.

But as the shows' popularity has grown, so has the controversy surrounding them. Next week, Mexico's top broadcaster will scrap "Duro y Directo" after an appeal from President Ernesto Zedillo himself. Other true-crime shows have suffered the same fate.

The cancellation demonstrates that concern about violence in the media has spread well beyond the United States. But critics say that blocking such violent images can censor critical opinions and important information.

"Viewers saw this show as a window onto reality," Alexis Nunez, the producer of "Duro y Directo," said in an interview. "This was a place where you could scream your desperation and point to those who cause the problems that every Mexican experiences."

Tabloid television burst onto the scene in Mexico in 1995 when an upstart network, TV Azteca, sought to grab ratings from Televisa, which had enjoyed a near-monopoly on viewers for decades.

Televisa was famous for its fairy-tale soap operas and cautious, pro-government newscasts. Azteca fought back by portraying the soaring crime that was devastating Mexico City. Soon, both networks featured wildly popular blood-and-guts shows.

"Duro y Directo" offered a typical menu: scruffy thieves, scowling hoodlums, saintly mothers coping with family tragedies. The show's jeans-clad reporters rushed to crime scenes as the announcer breathlessly sets up each story: "He humiliated his own mother!" "He dressed as a woman to rape girls!" "Only a miracle could save him!"

Raul Trejo, a media analyst, noted that the tabloid shows' reporters do little investigation or analysis of crime. But they have marked a new chapter in Mexican television by providing a forum for victims of crime, many of them poor and ignored by the news media.

"These were instruments to denounce [a crime crisis] that was known. People could go and talk about their problems," Trejo said.

Occasionally, the shows generated an outcry by showing corrupt police taking bribes or permitting crime, and several journalists received threats because of their aggressive reports. The journalists also jumped into the action themselves, providing first aid to victims.

If audiences loved the programs, however, government officials, some intellectuals and business executives blasted them.

Zedillo appealed to television executives in late 1997 to tone down violence, saying the crime programs "seem to exalt and encourage it." Both Televisa and TV Azteca promptly canceled their tabloid shows.

But similar programs soon appeared. Televisa decided to scrap "Duro y Directo" only after Zedillo made another public appeal last month against media violence.

"It was his idea," acknowledged producer Nunez. But he denied that the president pressured the network--a common practice of Mexico's authoritarian government in the past. Rather, Nunez said, the network decided to join what it perceived to be a worldwide trend to reduce media violence.

Some analysts aren't convinced, believing that the government did order the cancellations.

Analysts say economic pressure has been another factor behind the cancellation of the programs. Several shows were yanked after a group of Mexican business executives led by food tycoon Lorenzo Servitje organized a boycott of violent TV programs two years ago. One of them was "Ciudad Desnuda" ("Naked City") on TV Azteca.

At the time, Sergio Sarmiento, news director for TV Azteca, protested that the cancellation reflected snobbish efforts by the middle class to impose its preferences on the poor.

"The victims of crime, who are in good measure poor, don't want intellectual analysis," he wrote in the Mexico City daily Reforma. "They identify with a program like 'Ciudad Desnuda' because it's about the themes that are closest to them, and it speaks in a language they know."

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