On Saturday, March 14, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez addressed the public and announced that, due to the spread of COVID-19, a state of emergency, including restrictions on the fundamental right of free movement, would take effect across the country at midnight

Sánchez’s appearance brought a historic television audience record in Spain. TVE (Televisión Española), the national public television broadcaster, which belongs to the Spanish Radio and Television Corporation (RTVE), led the way, with 4,804,000 viewers, or 21.6 percent of the total audience. It was an exceptional result, but ultimately a one-off. In March, the month with the highest television viewership, TVE’s news programmes only took second place, behind the private broadcaster Antena 3 (owned by the Atresmedia Group). And between April and September, TVE held only third place, behind Antena 3 and Telecinco (owned by Mediaset España).

The COVID-19 pandemic, the great local and global news story of 2020, could have returned TVE to first place among audiences as the station of reference. That didn’t happen, despite the great efforts of its journalists and the increase in hours of news broadcasts.

It’s not so much that people question TVE’s quality. But many people continue to see political influence at TVE, assuming that the broadcaster responds to the interests of the governing party of the moment. And not without reason, according to Rafael Díaz Arias, a professor of journalism and analyst of Spain’s public broadcaster “For 40 years, the big parties have denatured the public function of TVE news and used it for their interests”, Díaz Arias said. “There have been accusations of manipulation as well as protests and complaints by TVE journalists themselves. All of this affects public opinion, which, when the colour of the government changes, assumes, rightly or not, that TVE is the channel of the government.”

This is easy to confirm, even if not in a very scientific way. If you sit down with friends or family, as soon as a controversial subject comes up, someone will accuse TVE of manipulation or being pro-government, regardless of which government is in power.

In a study on media in eight EU countries carried out in 2018 by the Pew Research Center, RTVE is the media outlet most cited by survey takers in Spain as their lead source of news (13 percent). However, Spain is the only country where public television is not the media outlet that generates the most trust. The private broadcaster Antenna 3 (64 percent) occupies first place, followed by TVE in second (57 percent).

Political polarization, which has grown in recent years, has led to media outlets being perceived as representing a particular ideology. Spain is not an exception. “What people want is not impartiality, but results”, Díaz Arias said. “So it’s hard to find people who are happy with an impartial public broadcaster. There have also been very serious incidents of interference from the far right in Finland, Austria and other countries. So it doesn’t just happen in Spain. But in these other places consensus can be achieved without a vicious fight.”

The quality of the news shows on its own is not enough to attract an audience. The programmes that run ahead of it are critical. “Frankly speaking it’s hard when TVE is not betting on serious, quality and original programming that makes it stand out”, Díaz Arias said. If you don’t have viewers for your general programming, it will be hard to get viewers for your news.”

In addition there is a question of overall perception. In spite of successive attempts at change, TVE, born during the Franco dictatorship, continues to be perceived on the street as more “government” than “public”, with its news a reflection of the government of the movement. And that, too, has played a role during the pandemic.

Even now, TVE has not been given the institutions and financing to ensure its stability and independence. Unfortunately, management changes at TVE continue to be linked to the changes of government. This pattern is imitated and repeated by the public television channels of Spain’s provinces. So it’s not surprising that, despite the value than many RTVE programmes have, some of which represent a genuine public service, public indifference regarding RTVE’s future has grown.

For this reason, the “depoliticization” of RTVE is urgent. It must finally by given a clear organizational structure and professional management where what matters is business and journalistic efficacy and not political affinity. Otherwise, TVE will continue losing its social relevance.

To secure its future, TVE must wrestle with various key challenges. One of these is the emergence of new competitors, such as digital platforms. Díaz Arias described a new ecosystem in which public television “is a little minnow, and swimming above it are bigger fish that can devour it. These are the big media groups, Atresmedia or Mediaset. Above them are the operators of network convergence. Further up are the online international platforms like Netflix, HBO and others – they are the whales. And still higher are the tech giants, like Amazon or Google. For this reason, public broadcasting, a sign of European identity, needs to be protected to guard against its extinction. And in the case of Spain, the question of financing needs to be resolved by political consensus, which is getting harder and harder to do with the polarization in society.”

These two pillars, the model of public audiovisual media and financing, are the big challenges that RTVE faces. Solving them requires larger political and societal agreement. Since TVE stopped airing advertisements in 2010, Díaz Arias believes that “those who should pay for the public service – and not because they have been ceded the advertising space, but because they dominate communications – are the private TV broadcasters, Atresmedia and Mediaset and other smaller ones, as well as the online platforms.”

First another key question needs to be resolved: governance. According to the law that regulates RTVE, the president and the administrative council are responsible for determining its objectives, content and financing. Since July 2018, a single provisional administrator, Rosa María Mateo, a former TVE journalist, heads the corporation. But as the story goes, the provisional becomes permanent, and the provisional administration has been prolonged. Discussions around a novel way of electing the president and administrative council through a public competition in which a group of experts select the members by merit, a process supported by the public and journalists, have gone quiet, due to lack of political will. So for now the only option is that the parliamentary commission tasked with monitoring RTV decides on the renewal of its management bodies.

A new challenge to the efforts to renew and depoliticize RTVE. A new frustration in the effort to strengthen an essential service to democracy.

Yolanda Sobero is a TVE journalist and former president of the Council of Journalists (Consejo de Informativos) of Spain’s public broadcaster. Any views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of IPI.