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Open airwaves

THE SMALL SCREEN

Felipe Calderon can show his independence by allowing a third network to broadcast in Mexico.

December 16, 2006

BARELY TWO WEEKS into his presidency, Mexico's Felipe Calderon faces vicious drug lords in the western state of Michoacan and questions about his legitimacy in the capital. But the greatest challenge of his first 100 days in office may be deciding what Mexicans can watch on TV.

At issue is whether to pry open the nation's television industry to competition or to continue coddling the Televisa-TV Azteca duopoly. Televisa is the largest Spanish-language media company in the world, and its channels control almost three-quarters of the Mexican market; TV Azteca, which was once government-owned, controls most of the rest. Both companies enjoy a cozy relationship with the state, and earlier this year, Mexico's Congress granted them more free space on the broadcast spectrum.

Their news operations, perhaps not so coincidentally, have a notorious track record of going soft on the government. On Dec. 1, Calderon took his oath of office before Congress amid the jeers of leftist legislators who claimed (absurdly) that his election was fraudulent. Yet citizens watching the ceremony on Televisa or TV Azteca saw no scenes of the chaos on the floor or of the hundreds of thousands protesting outside.

Against this backdrop, General Electric -- the owner of Telemundo, a U.S.-based Spanish-language network -- is playing the role of David to the Televisa-Azteca Goliath. Along with a Mexican partner, Telemundo is seeking to launch a new network in Mexico. The partners filed an application for a license in September. GE is claiming that this is partly a matter of cross-border fairness, as Televisa and TV Azteca are able to distribute their programming in the United States.

GE has a point, but Mexico desperately needs to open its media industry to competition for its own reasons. (And the U.S., for that matter, should lift its antiquated limits on direct foreign ownership of broadcasters.) The creation of a strong third TV network and the birth of niche cable channels would loosen Televisa's control over talent, improve the quality of entertainment and encourage more enterprising news coverage.

Calderon should welcome GE with open arms, and his regulators should make it easier for other new entrants, even if this offends powerful interests that backed Calderon's candidacy. Nothing else the new president could do would signal a more dramatic break with the past and a willingness to jump-start Mexico's economy by embracing true (as opposed to the nation's traditional crony) capitalism.

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