The battle for the audience, by Ignasi Aragay

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Catalan is a language with 1,000 years of history. Currently there are 9 million potential speakers, most of whom live within the confines of the Spanish State, in the regions of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and the Valencian Country. Like French, Spanish, or Italian, it is a Romance language that evolved from Latin after the break up of the Roman Empire. Its golden era was during the 14th and 15th centuries when Catalonia was an independent country and a Mediterranean maritime power. Despite the political and intellectual decline of the following centuries, despite the constant prohibitions and persecutions of the Spanish monarchy, Catalan has always been the language of the people and has never stopped being written or printed. At the end of the 19th century, with the push of the industrial revolution at home, the emergence of mass communication media, and the slow political and cultural recovery—which gave rise to figures such as the architect Antoni Gaudí—Catalonia’s language has won an ever increasingly central place in society, always in competition with, and at a disadvantage to Spanish.

Despite two brutal dictatorships and despite a genocidal civil war, the 20th century has been a golden century for Catalan literature especially in the fields of poetry and the novel. It was a period with highs and lows for the Catalan media, with moments of great creativity and widespread reach—like in the 1930s during the Spanish Republic and the Catalan autonomous government, or like the present—and moments of ostracism, like during the aforementioned dictatorships, especially that of General Franco (1939–1975).

Today, Catalan and Spanish are co-official languages in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and in the Valencian Country, although it is only in Catalonia that Catalan has had the benefit of an effective and continuous promotion campaign over the last 35 years, both within the school system (though the Spanish government is currently trying to eliminate Catalan’s status as the language of instruction in the education system) as well as in communications and politics. In other areas, like cinema, the judiciary system, or in business, Catalan’s presence is reduced. The society has deep-rooted diglossic behaviors, that is, it is particular about which language to use in which context or with which interlocutors. Catalonia, with 7.5 million inhabitants—of which 42 percent consider Catalan their primary, habitual language and more than 90 percent understand it—has at its disposal a set of media outlets that use both languages, in which, since the end of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalan has slowly gained ground, although at a disadvantage.

Despite some outlying examples, until the public Catalan TV channel (TV3) started transmitting regularly in 1984, one could not really speak of general Catalan television, with a variety of programming, including fiction, news, and entertainment shows. The years of splendor for this channel were the ones that preceded the opening of Spain to the private television companies. Until that point, TV3 had a steady audience share of 30 percent and it revolutionized and modernized its contents and style, in the context of a very limited and old–fashioned television ecosystem. During the 90s, TV3 was able to maintain audience share between 25 and 30 percent. After the appearance of digital terrestrial television (DTT), the reach of Catalan public television, despite having additional channels to offer, and despite fighting for leadership within Catalonia, fell to its current audience share of 19.3 percent in 2011, where, one must note, it remains in first place. The increasing fragmentation of both the offerings and the audience, as well as the budget cuts affecting spending on public television due to the prevailing austerity policies in the European Union, have reduced the number of channels in the Catalan Television conglomerate, and foreshadow a further loss of share during the next few years. This loss in the linguistic terrain will not be compensated by the appearance of private channels in Catalan, which have yet to make much of a mark (2.7 percent share for 8TV in 2011).

All of the percentages mentioned up to this point refer strictly to the area of Catalonia, since the transmissions of the Catalan public television in the Balearics and in Valencia has always been prohibited by Spanish legislation, and only sometimes circumvented in extralegal fashion by concerned citizens. Currently, Catalan TV does not reach these areas, nor do transmissions from those areas reach Catalonia. Meanwhile, the Valencian and Balearic public television channels, created in 1989 (Canal9) and in 2005 (IB3) respectively, are being radically cut back due to the economic crisis and decatalanized by their respective governments, both of which are in hands of the Spanish nationalist right (Partit Popular). Before the recent cuts to the workforce, Canal9 had about 10 percent share in its territory and IB3 had about 7.5 percent.

Beyond the numbers, public television in Catalan has been an extremely important force in the struggle to normalize the language among the greater public and to strengthen the cultural imagination with its own star system, besides being a pillar of the international–tending audiovisual industry centered in Barcelona. In Catalonia, in addition, the clear leadership position achieved by the news -programs—including nightly news, debates, and magazines—has also played a crucial role in informing public opinion, which is more and more distanced from Spanish public opinion.

In this respect, the existence of a unique Catalan press, completely differentiated from that of Madrid, the market leader in Spain, is particularly relevant. The Catalan newspaper reader buys very few papers based in the kingdom’s capital, and at the same time, reads increasingly more in Catalan. The newspapers that are leaders in the market are, according to average figures for 2011, the veteran, conservative La Vanguardia—with a daily run of 175,000 print copies—and the progressive and populist El Periódico—with 104,000 copies. Both are published in two editions, that is they publish one version in Spanish and a translated version in Catalan. In the case of La Vanguardia, sales of the two editions are split almost evenly—the Catalan version began publication in 2011—while the proportion of Spanish to Catalan (begun in 1997) of El Periódico is about 60/40. El Periódico has digital editions in both languages, while La Vanguardia has a robust digital edition in Spanish and only a digital copy of the print edition in Catalan.

Continuing with data from 2011, the leading paper in Spain, El País, is a distant third and leans progressive, but only sells 38,500 copies a day in Catalonia. Next come two Catalan-only papers, the historic and conservative El Punt-Avui—30,000 print copies sold—and the two-year-old Ara, which is progressive and Catalanist, and sells 15,000 print copies daily but has 1.5 million monthly unique visitors to its digital edition, where it is an active leader in Catalan. In Catalonia, the local press also plays an important role, either in Catalan or in bilingual editions.

Apart from El País, the rest of the important Spanish dailies—El Mundo, ABC, and La Razón—all with ultraconservative tendencies, have a very slight impact in Catalonia, where they are perceived as hostile press given their constant attacks on the language and the very institutions of the Catalan government. They also have a historical editorial trend that has been accentuated by the current pro–independence movement taking place in Catalan society and politics. On November 25, 2012, the movement culminated in the election of a regional Parliament in which two thirds are in favor of convoking a referendum on self-determination.

The newspaper market is territorially fragmented where Catalan is spoken. La Vanguardia and El Periódico make it to the Balearics and to the Valencian Country, but paradoxically only their Spanish editions are sent and they are not big sellers. The only Catalan newspaper that is sold throughout the Catalan linguistic territory is Ara, but in a limited way, especially in Valencia. In the Balearics and in Valencia, the most popular selling papers are the regional ones in Spanish, followed by the Madrid-based papers.

It’s in radio where the Catalan language has achieved an important penetration in Catalonia in the last few years, doubling its audience share in the last decade (2002–2012) with the two Catalan language stations at the top of the ranking, relegating the Spanish group SER (430,000 monthly listeners) to third place. Currently, the most listened to radio is the private RAC1, which belongs to the Godó Group (which also owns La Vanguardia and 8TV). Established in 2000, RAC1 reached 700,000 monthly listeners in 2012, followed by the public station, Catalunya Ràdio, with 600,000 listeners.

If we take communications in its broad sense, it’s also important to underscore that Catalonia is the capital of book publishing, obviously in Catalan, but also in Spanish, competing with Madrid. The roots of large publishing houses like Planeta, Bertelsmann, and RBA, and a wide variety of medium and smaller specialized houses is the product of continuous activity, which has spread to Spain, Latin America, and the rest of the world. Publishing is suffering its own particular business crisis at the hands of emerging technologies at the same time that it is being buffeted by the global and also specifically Spanish financial crisis, and it’s safe to say that it’s not having an easy time of it.

In summary, Catalan media has a long history and despite the difficulties of the financial crisis, shows remarkable dynamism that will respond to three factors. First, to the vitality and cultural diversity of a society that is always open to changes but also proud of its traditions. Second, to the political battle in national terms between a Catalonia that aspires to create an independent state and a Spain that looks to deny that possibility. And third, to the competition between languages.

With respect to this last point, it’s important to remember that in addition to Catalan and Spanish, as a destination spot for tourists and as a net importer of immigrants—there were 1.5 million new residents between 1990 and 2000—there is a very diverse population in Catalonia, with more than 300 maternal languages that come from North Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and English-speaking countries, a diversity that already has its own media channels, as in the case of the Dayly Dost, a Pakistani community paper and the Latino.


Ignasi Aragay

Journalist, deputy director of the daily ARA. Expert in Cultural journalism. Author of the books, Diccionari Montaigne [A dictionary of Montaigne], El lector obsedit [The obsessed reader], Anolecrab, [which, read backwards, is Barcelona], and Què pensa Salvador Cardús [What Salvador Cardús thinks].
Married with three children.

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