History and Tv in Portugal

by M. Joao

Since the early 90s the most important and significant national TV channels in Portugal are four: RTP1, RTP2, SIC and TVI. RTP1 and RTP2 are both public channels, although RTP started just as single public channel in the mid-fifties and it was the only TV channel in Portugal for decades. SIC and TVI are both private channels and started to broadcast in the early nineties after an important law about radio and television that changed the TV legislation in Portugal giving permission and opportunity for the first time in Portugal to the existence of private channels. Since then the public enterprise RTP created several thematic and local channels like, par example, RTP International: oriented to the vast number of Portuguese emigrants all over the world in places like Canada, USA, Brazil, Venezuela, France, Luxembourg and Germany among many others; RTP Africa oriented to the ex-Portuguese colonies in Africa: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cabo Verde and São Tomé and Principe; RTPN oriented to a local audience in the north of Portugal; or even RTP Memória, RTP Memory, a reprise channel with the golden moments of the history of RTP. Despite this, since the mid-seventies that RTP owned two local channels, RTP Madeira and RTP Azores, because after the 1974 revolution these two regions obtained a new political status that gave them a certain autonomy from the continent and the power centred in Lisbon.

In Portugal, the most important and the biggest part of programs of History use to be broadcasted by the two national public channels. Though, there are considerable differences between both of them: In RTP1, the programs of History are definetly more commercial making part in many cases of popular TV contests or assuming the forms of fictional presenting that in some cases results in soap formats; In RTP2, the most usual History programs form is the documentary some times of national production although RTP2 several times broadcasts too documentaries of other origins like for exemple from Brazil, USA and, of course, from other countries of the European Union, specially from United Kingdom. In this channel, José Hermano Saraiva maintains an history program, since the seventies, but often enough since the nineties. In general these programs deal with several aspects of Portuguese History and is centered in his recognized talent to speak for wide audiences. So, he completes the whole program with his speech travelling by the country discovering a monument or a certain historical place. Criticized by historians he is however admired by the so-called “general audiences”.

The other channels, private and commercial, barely broadcast History programs. Even the SIC cable channels (like SIC Woman, SIC Radical or SIC News) don’t use to broadcast History programs, not even about thematics with strict relation with the orientation of those channels. However in the first years of the 21st century when the Public television struggled to survive their deepest crisis of audiences ever, SIC national channel broadcasted three of the most popular documentaries series of the history of portuguese television: “Salazar”, “The Big Travel” and “The Portuguese 20th Century”.

Salazar” made by Joana Pontes, in 1999, was a serial of six episodes. In these series, for the first time ever, the Portuguese dictator, António Salazar, was revealed in a biographical and historical point of view. “The Big Travel“ made by Brandão Lucas, author of one of most popular documentary series of RTP 1 “Remote People”, a serial about distant lands in Africa and Asia where the Portuguese have been during the 15 and 16th century. “The Big Travel”, produced with an ephemeris purpose, celebrated Vasco da Gama’s travel to India occurred in the late 15th century. These programs tried not only to remake the Da Gama’s travel, but and at the same time to present the Portuguese influences in Africa and India. “The Portuguese 20th century” was made after under influence of BBC TV Series about twenty century history. Both series shared a similar style and conception: archives films and photos that supported a text improved by the veracity of testimonies. These three series produced by SIC were all of them broadcasted by History Channel Iberia and were released edited for home video entertainment.

These three examples had no continuity in SIC production due, perhaps, to the fact that this commercial channel preferred to invest in more popular and entertaining programs, like soap novels or in general reality shows. By other hand they created a new specialized channel: Sic Notícias (Sic News) that broadcast documentaries but not specifically history ones. In fact journalistic programs about politics and present life dominate the channel agenda. In present times, historical documentaries series seems to be condemned to disappear from the commercial television.

In the public channels the situation is different. As we’ve said it’s notorious a certain distinction between RTP1 and RTP2: the first channel is constructed for wide audiences and in general it imitates commercial channels. What concerns History programs there are a clear preference for fiction. Since the beginning of the nineties that almost every year RTP1 produced at least a History fiction serial with a medium-low rate public acceptance. In present days there is a meaningful example, inspired in similar Spanish series: “Tell me how it was once” is the title of a fiction serial about a Portuguese family who lives in the end of the sixties during the fascism times.

The last of these history fictional programs is about the regicide of the king D. Carlos I, in February 1908, an historical event generally associated to the end of monarchy in Portugal and the beginning of the republican revolution of 1910.In this program the ephemeris purposes are clear – when TV, private or public, produces history programs based on ephemeris, this one get the status of a “special daily event” and makes part of the day news agenda.

But there are some exceptions in this channels usual programming schedule. Sometimes historical documentaries are broadcasted in RTP 1’s prime time. This use to happen, when documentaries have a huge and recognized quality production and their authors are already popular. We stress two great documentaries series broadcasted in RTP1, in the last months:

-“Portugal:a social portrait”. These series deal mainly with general aspects of contemporary life in Portugal, in the last forty years. So, each episode is dedicated to one specific theme, presenting the past and present status quo: the last fifty years of dictatorship, the 24th April revolution and the construction of democracy.

With a high production pattern, using amazing archives images (we cant forgot that RTP possess the greatest film archive in Portugal), these series announce the discovery of an identity for Portuguese people, and do not exclude non-portuguese people living in Portugal. One more time the director is Joana Pontes and the author, António Barreto, is a known socialist politician and a distinguished sociologist.

“The War” is a serial about the Portuguese colonial war, in the sixties and early seventies.

In the eighteen episodes of “The War” are used rare films not only from RTP archives, but also from the archives of image of the Portuguese Army, Navy and Air Force and some private footage too. Joaquim Furtado, the director of “The War” is one of the most well-known journalists in Portugal and a singular personality that participated in the Portuguese Revolution of 25 of April of 1974 and integrated too the Portuguese army in the seventies.

The War” dealing with the recent Portuguese colonial war, deals with a very polemic question in the actual Portuguese society, because there are war victims in both sides and because some political questions end emerging on the discussion of the program: the end of colonial war, the independence of the ex-colonies and, in a more practical way, the diplomatic relations between Portugal and the African countries that speak portuguese.

In general, the so-called cultural programs are broadcasted especially in RTP2. In fact, is only in RTP2 that we could see a wide range of non-portuguese documentaries in general American or British and Portuguese documentaries reprise. These programs in general are broadcasted late at night, because the channel policy about prime time gives privilege to commercial series. Some years ago prime time in this channel were occupied only by cultural programs.So, in nowadays American series are cultural programs? Or cultural television no longer exists in public television, or only exists late at night?

It’s true that the notorious low audience performance of this channel, in the last few years, almost condemned it to disappearance. But the so-called “sociedade civil”, public or private institutions who wants to participate in public television, contribute to maintain this channel until the present days. Is in this context of “sociedade civil” that we can understand Universities participation in TV?

Universidade Aberta, as a distance learning University, broadcasted daily a 25 minute program, several times dedicated to History themes. That program, “Entre Nós”, ends in last December. In the present, Universidade Aberta broadcasts every Saturday, early in the morning, a meaningful number of programs dealing with cultural issues, and there History is not forgotten. Today new pedagogical strategies evolved to on-line education and television as an educational medium lost a big amount of its appeal. Universidade Aberta and her television role is in the present largely discussed: should Universidade Aberta continue to broadcast in public television? What are the opportunities in specialized cable channels? Shall we construct a strategy plan in order to make our production more aggressive and more adapted (contents and forms) to present commercial TV?

Universidade Aberta is not yet a channel, perhaps in the future…

History programs issues deals with several questions: What we intend about a history program? Only documentaries? What about other television genres when fiction and reality are mixed? And what to say about TV contests on History? Some of these contests are sometimes powerful television audience events…

Par example a sophisticated production contest like “The Best Portuguese of all Times”: It takes long for months, with the participation of popular politicians, actors and intellectuals and even one historian (historians community attacks the contents of this contest, criticizing the low quality of historical presentations). RTP made short documentaries about the personalities that were chosen by the audience through Internet and telephone votes. Conclusion: in the very long night poll, the winner was……Salazar. Weird isn’t it? Even me predicting that terrible result, send my personal vote (not in Salazar, of course…). Well, not all about that contest was disappointing. In fact, Aristides de Sousa Mendes (curiously, well known by Portuguese audiences through a RTP 1 documentary of Diana Andringa made in the early nineties), the portuguese consul in Bordeaux, in 1940, who saved thousands of jewish refugees got the third place…the second place went to Alvaro Cunhal, the leader of Portuguese Comunist Party.

So History themes could mobilize audiences, but like in the last example focused, not always with the best results. Even the word “mobilize” audiences are weaker than in the past…What to say when we look in the present and we see continuous specialization of audiences? Results from the so-called global world? We know that today it is difficult to see audiences like we’ve seen them five years ago. People search what they want to watch on TV set, in their own schedule, getting their favourite programs in DVD formats. Historical documentaries are searched by those who want to construct their private DVD collection. That is perhaps the present and the future. So, we must produce high pattern quality history programs, and to do it, we must do it the irreplaceable contribution of historians.


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