The shutdown of a Venezuelan television station critical of President Hugo Chavez may prove a windfall for the owner of a rival network: millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
The extra income could help media mogul Gustavo Cisernos reclaim his position as Venezuela's richest man, a place he now shares with Lorenzo Mendoza, each with a net worth of $6 billion and at the top of the heap in Venezuela.
Mendoza's fortune comes from beer, Cisneros' from a string of media holdings, including the private TV network Venevision. In the Forbes magazine's 2006 billionaires' list, Cisneros was $100 million ahead of Mendoza, and in 2005, close to a billion.
Gustavo wants to be number one, it's really important to him, said a Caracas businessman familiar with the Cisneros family who did not want to be identified. And now he has an opportunity.
In terms of audience and advertising revenue, Venevision perpetually ran behind RCTV, the country's oldest TV network. For years, both were sharply critical of Chavez, who accused Cisneros and RCTV's director general, Marcel Granier, of involvement in plotting an abortive coup against him in 2002.
What happened since then highlights how part of the Venezuelan elite, many linked through family ties, have learned to coexist and prosper with Chavez despite his plans to bring 21st century socialism and a classless society to the country.
After a meeting between Chavez and Cisneros brokered by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2004, Venevision dropped its anti-Chavez tone. RCTV stepped it up. In May, the government renewed Venevision's broadcast license for five years and let RCTV's license expire.
The decision drew widespread condemnation in Venezuela and abroad as an assault on the freedom expression. Also at stake: more than a quarter billion dollars a year in advertising money, by most estimates.
Overall, the money spent on TV advertising totals around $600 million, Granier said in a recent interview. We had the biggest share. It's not difficult to guess where that share will go.
AT STAKE: $280 MILLION
Experts say that while it is far too early to get a clear picture on the redistribution of the advertising pie -- RCTV previously took around $280 million of the total -- a survey by the Datos company said 44.7% of those interviewed named Venevision as their favorite TV after RCTV went off the air.
Globovision, a 24-hour news channel which still broadcasts reports critical of the government, came second, with 32.5 percent. Chavez has repeatedly threatened to shut the network down and warned such a decision could be taken independent of when its license lapses.
Despite frosty relations now between Granier and Cisneros, the two are linked by family ties typical in the tight-knit world Chavez often terms the oligarchy. The two media tycoons are married to cousins -- daughters of the Phelps family whose patriarch founded the conglomerate that embraces RCTV.
Venezuela's web of the wealthy and the well-connected was spotlighted again when Thor Halvorssen, a human rights activist and Chavez opponent, published an op-ed piece in the New York Post. It contrasted Cisneros and Granier in a tale of two Venezuelan media kings -- one heroic, one craven.
Reflecting opposition views widely heard in Venezuela, the piece portrayed Cisneros as a villain, a man in deep collusion with Chavez who changed his network's course toward entirely rosy coverage of government activities.
Cisneros's response came in the form of a reader's letter to the New York Post denying there had been a Carter-brokered deal. The letter was signed by Antonieta Lopez, vice president corporate affairs of the Cisneros Group.
She is Halvorssen's aunt and godmother. They are distant relatives of the beer billionaire who shares the title of Venezuela's richest man with Cisneros.