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The Revolution, televised

You might be surprised what Cubans are watching.

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.