YouTube's technology has given the world a new kind of political refugee: the dissident television station.
When Hugo Chavez was elected (in a landslide) as president of Venezuela back in 1998, he promised to bring a democratic revolution to the people of Venezuela. But it turns out he's more of an autocrat than a democrat, and he has begun to try to reign in his critics in the press.
This culminated with Chavez "not renewing" (i.e. banning) the broadcast license for RCTV (Englishbackgrounder on RCTV here), which has been highly critical of Chavez. Chavez says RCTV is "inciting unrest" in the country. A classically vague charge worthy of China or the Soviets in their day. It certainly has no place in a modern, Western demcracy.
On the positive side, Chavez has turned out to be a very entertaining and vocal critic of the U.S. and George Bush (check out his infamous "Bush = Devil" speech at the UN). The guy just has no filter. He calls opponents names and uses amazing hyperbole. Miami Herald Latin-America columnist Andres Oppenheimer has given Chavez the hilarious title of "Narcissist-Leninist".
But how RCTV has responded to the Chavez challenge is amazing, too. The station has simply "gone YouTube." The LA Times reports that RCTV hasn't even laid off any of its 3000 employees. It's still producing soap operas, community-service material, and Chavez's-thorn-in-the-flesh program "The Observer" all on YouTube. Some of RCTV's programming is also carried by international cable providers.
To my knowledge, this is the first time an entire analog media operation has moved online in this way and for this reason -- and with virtually no loss of staff or production.
But the big question is how RCTV proposes to generate revenue over the long run, after its cause is no longer in the news and when it can't control the distribution channel. This is especially key in light of the $1 billion lawsuit Viacom has filed against Google/YouTube, which essentially sees YouTube as a threat to old-media revenues (interesting new theories on Viacom's reasoning here).
RCTV's experiment is less than a month old and too young to judge. But it will have important consequences if it's successful -- and not just for dissident media.