The Revolution, televised

HAVANA, Cuba — Over the past two decades, the U.S. government has spent some $500 million to beam news and commentary with an anti-Castro bent into Cuba. But the programming hasn't exactly been a ratings success.

The Cuban government controls all media on the island and views the broadcasts as enemy propaganda, so it jams the signals. The Miami-based stations, Radio and TV Marti, have spent still more money trying to overcome this by transmitting from moving airplanes, but the broadcasts reach less than 1 percent of Cuba’s 11 million residents, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Meanwhile, hours and hours of subversive American programming fill Cuba’s airwaves each day, attracting millions of viewers on the island with shows like “Desperate Housewives,” “Friends” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” How do they get there? They’re broadcast by Cuba’s own communist government.

With Radio and TV Marti and its $34-million annual budget facing growing skepticism in Congress, the Miami stations’ defenders insist they’re helping to break the Cuban government’s monopoly on information. But while Cuba’s programming is politically biased and often tedious, it’s hardly a drab, droning monotony of pro-Castro propaganda.

Every night, Cuban television viewers are treated to programming lineup loaded with contradictory messages. From 6 p.m. to 8:30 or so, the government’s news and commentary predictably depict the United States as a racist, dysfunctional and violent mess, highlighting all the day’s negative stories. Then the same state-owned TV channels fill their prime-time slots with Hollywood movies and American programs loaded with images of prosperous American households, brilliant American doctors and fair-minded American courts of law, all populated by exceedingly healthy and charismatic actors of every race and ethnicity.

So how do Cuban TV viewers reconcile these dueling impressions?

“It’s two sides of the same country,” said Lorena Sandoval, a 60-year-old Havana resident who says the mixed programming is a reminder that not everything in the United States is entirely good or bad.

Sandoval’s not sure many Cubans get the nuance, though. “They just see the nice cars and houses and think everyone in the U.S. lives that way,” said Sandoval, herself a devoted fan of “Gilmore Girls,” “CSI: Las Vegas” and “The Dog Whisperer.”

Cuba has five national television channels, and last weekend, the programming included a broad range of foreign and locally produced programming, everything from Cuban baseball games and low-budget music shows to “101 Dalmatians” and episodes of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” The only commercials were public service announcements — encouraging people to conserve electricity, avoid littering and use condoms, for instance.

“I think Cuban TV’s main goal is educational,” said Javier Torres, a 32-year-old Havana resident who said his only major gripe about state-run programming is the lack of diverse viewpoints on news and commentary programs. His favorite show is the prison drama “Oz.”

In another twist, the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba may actually make it easier for American movies and shows to end up on Cuban TV. Since the trade sanctions block the Cuban government from paying legally for the use of American media content, it just uses the programming for free. Even pirated copies of American movies make it onto the airwaves. Current Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar” was shown on Cuban TV earlier this month, copyright laws be damned.

Of course, state-controlled programming isn’t the only thing Cubans are watching. Thousands of island residents have illegal satellite dishes that allow them to watch Dish or Direct TV programming from Miami, and although the Cuban government periodically cracks down, it’s a lucrative business. One illegal satellite provider in Havana said he had more than 100 customers, each paying about $40 a month for service.

The service is far less common in the provinces outside Havana. But a single satellite hidden on the roof of a city apartment building may be secretly wired to dozens of nearby households, each paying $5 a month to the satellite’s owner for the ability to watch whatever he’s watching. That owner, in turn, takes requests from his neighbors and nearby customers, who may want to view programs that aren’t available on Cuban TV, like “American Idol,” a Yankees baseball game or “Survivor.”

In turn, these illegal satellites feed an even larger black market for DVDs and downloaded digital media. Enterprising Cubans record movies from the satellite channels, then copy them onto DVDs for sale or rent. Others end up stored and shared on hard drives or flash memory sticks.

The proliferation of digital media on the island has made it increasingly tough for the Cuban government to monopolize its audience. That competition may be another reason the number of state-run channels has increased from two to five over the past decade, with programming that increasingly reflects what people want to watch, rather than what the government officially thinks they should be watching.

But it’s also made Radio and TV Marti a less appealing alternative for Cubans who don’t necessarily want more politics in their lives. Cuban dissident Vladimiro Roca recently complained to Miami’s El Nuevo Herald that Radio Marti was “so bad and so uninteresting to the Cuban people that no one listens,” adding that its coverage was too focused on exile politics in Miami, instead of news from Cuba.

The Government Accountability Office’s report reached a similar conclusion, depicting the Miami broadcasts as plagued by low standards of journalism. Among the problems the study found were “the presentation of individual views as news,” the frequent use of “unsubstantiated reports coming from Cuba,” and a tendency toward “offensive and incendiary language in broadcasts.”

Radio and TV Marti will soon begin partnering directly with Voice of America to produce a new show aimed in part at Venezuela, a move some view as a possible step toward bringing the Miami stations under great control from the larger and more respected D.C. institution.