Spanish TV

“After 10 years here I still can’t speak a word of Spanish!”

It seems to be a uniquely English thing to say.

The number of years changes but the tone of stubborn pride is always the same, normally followed by some hackneyed comment about “them understanding English if you shout it loud enough”.

Ha ha. Very funny.

Strangely enough, after a couple of beers these people will usually produce a copy of the Daily Mail before launching into a rant about immigrants in the UK who “can’t be bothered to integrate with us native English”.

Despite being a public school Englishman myself, I still can’t understand why the English seem to be unable to learn a second language.

Even the long term Yanks along the coast appear to be able to pick up a smattering of the language. Eastern and central Europeans are fluent within days of arriving.

It’s only the English and the hard core Catalans who refuse to learn Castellano.

I know people who have been on the coast for 30 years who still can’t speak enough Castellano to hire a plumber when their boiler breaks.

Trapped in their own little world of expats plumbers, lawyers, butchers, shops and restaurants, powered by Sky TV, expat newspapers and their little clique of friends, these people are trapped in a small area and are at the mercy of predatory English speaking sharks who circle them constantly, on the lookout for an easy buck.

And it’s not just the pensioners who are to blame. Many people, setting up their first ever business (and in a foriegn land, no less!) still seem unable to grasp even a basic grasp of the language. The number of times I have called up an English owned business and started speaking in Spanish, only to hear a desperate shriek of ¿hablar englise? coming from the other end of the receiver, beggers belief.

To be fair though, most expats do make an effort to try to start learning Spanish, which is why I think it only fair to warn you: speaking Spanish has one major disadvantage – you start to understand Spanish television.

Of course, far be it from me to claim that British TV is far superior to the Spanish variant. It’s just different, and possibly, in general, bigger budget.

Spanish TV is a strange mix of badly dubbed US shows (House is amazingly popular), remade UK shows (Doc Martin, Life on Mars, Taxi, Downton Abbey have all been remade set in Spain), local art house programmes, usually quite excellent local news and weather, heavily politicised national news, and reality shows (Big Brother just seems to go from strength to strength).

But there is a particular type of Spanish television programme that is thankfully absent from British screens, a type of programme that really plumbs the base depths of human nature, the crown jewel of mindless dumbed-down, micro-celebrity rubbish.

Forget breakfast TV, forget paparazzi powered celebrity shows, these programmes stand out as a study in how to cram in nonstop gossip, backstabbing bitching mixed in with border line subliminal advertising. Watch out for a washed out logo in the corner that meekly bleeps ¡publicidad! as the presenter calmly switches from who slept with whom into a discussion on the best store to buy a bed from. ¡Mr bed! the panel will scream with one voice, united in a rare show of unity by the advertising euro of Mr Bed’s PR team.

Depending on who is talking, these programmes are either described as “tertulias” (discussion programmes) – usually the term used by the newspapers or channels that air these programmes; “prensa rosa” – the pink press, nothing to do with homosexuality but Spanish way of saying sensationalist journalism or “telebasura” (tele-rubbish) the term used by everyone else.

I personally think that you need to use all three words as together they describe the format, content and intellectual level of these programmes perfectly.

A media friend who worked in TV once explained the popularity of these programmes.

It seems that the market research department of Telecinco (a national TV channel which seems to specialise in these programmes, and which is half owned by Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi) figured out that apres siesta there were a good four hours in which the only people watching TV were housewives and students, everyone else either working or down at the beach.

So, said these geniuses, lets put together a programme that is superficially “news” but in reality the TV version of the worst gossip mag you’ve ever read.

The basic format is simple.

A group of ‘personalities’ and ‘journalists’ sit down together in a television studio.

The ‘personalities’ aren’t really personalities, as they have normally done little more than sleep with someone famous or participated in a Big Brother-type game show; and the ‘journalists’ are not ever going to be shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. But that doesn’t matter because this is all about gossip and back biting. Actual facts are in short supply, and not encouraged.

The presenter blows the metaphorical whistle and off they go. And that’s it. The conversation rises from honest discussion (rarely) through bickering (normally) to full-blown all-shout-at-the-same-time screaming matches (roughly every 10 minutes or so).

Occasionally, the bigger budget ones will cut to a field reporter, who attempts to climb over the wall of an exclusive mansion, or corners someone at an awards ceremony and shouts insulting questions at them before turning back to the camara and shrugging.

“Of course they didn’t reply” is the subtext. “They’re guilty” (as opposed to being at an award ceremony, mobbed by reporters and not sure who to talk to first”.

Although the famous have wised up to the technique now, and usually make sure they speak to these programmes before anyone else. A sight of a dreaded salvame logo will have a half dozen celebreties freezing in horror.

The “discussions” before and afterwards are the verbal equivalent of wrestling, as in everything is sorted out beforehand and carefully scripted. The opponents go through their moves, using insults and angry gestures in place of body slams and half nelsons, all carefully calculated to cause the maximum spectacle for the audience, which bays and boos and claps with all the vigour of the cheap seats at a Roman amphitheatre.

Nothing, no subject is too trivial for these clockwork grotesques to begin ranting about. Popular discussion topics range from you said such-and-such about so-and-so, you slept with him or her, you are a money-grubbing bastard/bitch to who’s had what plastic surgery and whether someone’s dress matched her shoes at a recent wedding.

Or the pack will turn on someone who has been in the news recently to tear them apart like a pack of wild wolves.

Of course, they rarely pick on the powerful (unless their TV channel is having a public spat with them at that moment). They prefer to pick on the Z list celebrities who are secretly delighted by the attention and have been coached into simply pretending to be coy in front of the reporters.

Some celebrities have made an entire career out of these programmes. Belen Esteben, whose only claim to fame was becoming pregnant by a famous bullfighter after a one night stand, briefly turned herself into “Spains princess” via constant appearences; after her nose fell off (either diabetes or cocaine, depending which programme you watched) she forced herself even more onto TV, had a high profile spat with the second wife of the bullfighter and won the Spanish version of “Strictly come dancing” in 2010, despite not being able to dance (in one famous dance, she was dropped by her partners whilst being spun in the air and bounced off the supporting dancers).

Although few Spaniards openly admit to watching these programmes, they command vast audiences, with the most popular regularly picking up figures of 18% of the total viewing public.

Over the years, the Spanish have developed an insatiable appetite for these programmes and like a particularly malignant form of televised plant life, they are everywhere now. The current leader of the pack, a programme entitled Salvame (save me), runs from 15:45 to 20:00 Monday to Friday, with an extra evening show on Fridays between 21:45 and 02:30. Or to put it another way, that’s 26 hours of it on just one programme on one channel – there are five or six other versions of this type of programme every day battling for their share of the airwaves. The programme is so popular that an additional version of it, salvame delux is aired, with a “sub presenter” and a different panel, whose only job seems to be to rehash the main version. And there’s even a third version, salvame ¡por favor! an excepts of the “best bits”.

But that’s not the worst of it.

The worst thing is that when I try to explain these programmes to the rest of my fellow expats, I constantly get the same response: the eyebrows rise and a sparkle of interest comes into their eyes. “Really? That sounds great.”

Let’s hope programme makers in the UK don’t get wind of it.

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