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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chavez Drowns Out Beloved Soaps

CARACAS, Venezuela -- When President Hugo Chavez said recently that he hated television soap operas, Venezuelans knew without a doubt that he meant it.

Since the start of the year, the loquacious former paratrooper has made more than a dozen televised addresses, each lasting an average of two hours, generally broadcast in the prime time evening slot normally reserved for soaps.

The speeches, touching on subjects raging from government road building plans to his latest musings on the South American country's political upheavals, are carried live, by law, on all television and radio stations. Venezuelan legislation allows the government to monopolize the airwaves whenever it deems it in the national interest.

Chavez calls it democracy in action - a chance for people to hear firsthand what the state plans to do with their taxes and take part in the decision-making process. But a growing number of Venezuelans are despairing of the lengthy addresses that disrupt their favorite shows and cause major headaches for television and advertising executives.

"I can't take any more. He talks morning, noon and night on all channels. It's like living in a dictatorship," complained hairdresser Judith Salas, who voted for Chavez in his landslide December 1998 election win.

"I love soap operas, they're great to relax with after spending all day on my feet. Now I can't even do that," she said.

It's not just soap fans who are at their wit's end. Television companies are losing millions of dollars as the uninterrupted presidential broadcasts force commercial breaks to be canceled.

"Each time that Chavez speaks we lose a night of commercials," said Carlos Delgado, marketing head at Televen, Venezuela's third-largest channel.

Industry analysts estimate that television stations lose between 1 billion and 5 billion bolivars ($1.5 million to $7.6 million) every time he talks during the 7 to 11 p.m. prime time.

When Chavez came to power in February 1999 his energetic and informal style was a welcome novelty compared with his taciturn and aging predecessor, Rafael Caldera.

"Historically this has always been a very presidentialist country," said Sol Morillo, a communications adviser for several local politicians. "When the president isn't seen people feel kind of lost. The difference with Chavez is that he loves to talk."

Chavez's improvised interventions quickly became a hit with audiences as the colorful and chatty president mixed important announcements with references to his baseball exploits, anecdotes about growing up poor in a rural town or jokes about the physical characteristics of his ministers.

"You have to admit that he is entertaining," said Morillo. "Something that could be said with 10 words, he says with 55 and in an amusing way."

But recent viewing figures indicate that his charm may be wearing thin.

During the first two weeks of February, Chavez and his ministers made nine addresses, broadcast on all radio and television stations.

Ratings for the programs fell from 32 percent of the potential audience at the start of the month to about 23 percent by mid-February, according to figures by media consultants AGB Panamericana de Venezuela Medicion.

That compares with figures of around 35 percent for the extremely popular soaps and close to 40 percent for top shows such as the annual Miss Venezuela beauty pageant.

"It's not democratic to force me to watch something without giving me an option. That's what the state-owned television channel is for," Morillo said.

Scores of mostly middle- and upper-class Venezuelans staged pot-banging rallies against the addresses last November in an effort to persuade Chavez to stop.

The protests quickly fizzled out when Chavez vowed to carry on with his regular speeches, even threatening to talk "all night until no one is left listening."

Unmoved by the growing grumblings, the president last month attacked soap operas for "filling children's heads with rubbish" and "sending the collective conscience to sleep."

"They say that housewives won't like me. Well let them not like me," he said. "I've been against soap operas all my life. So I'm not going to stop on account of them."

But by attacking soap operas, he is taking on a national institution that has a firm and dedicated following at home and is exported to scores of countries worldwide.

"Since he knows that he can't compete against the soaps, he broadcasts on all channels. If not, no one would watch him," said Morillo.