Television programming in Spain has undergone a transformation over the past decade - changes driven partly by economics and partly by politics.

Ever since the banking crisis of 2008, the country has been in a semi-constant state of political upheaval.

A series of corruption scandals, inconclusive general elections and, more recently, Catalonia's run at independence have kept Spaniards glued to their televisions and pundits talking 24/7. That has given rise to a wave of political talk shows that the Spanish call tertulias.

These programmes meet two important criteria, they provide political flashpoints that audiences seem to like and they're cheap to produce.

However, the discussion is not always balanced. Public broadcasters, in particular, have been known to engineer talk show panels to promote their government's agendas.

"Political debates seem to have adopted the practice of gossip shows to get record audiences, and it looks like it's working," says Marina Gonzalez Sanz, the University of Seville.

Political debates and political communications in Spain have changed completely because of the TV tertulias and, moreover, there's no going back to the past. That is good for democracy ... We have gone from being a country of bullfighters and flamenco singers, to be a country of footballers and politicians.

Joan Lopez Alegre, Universidad Abat Oliva Ceu

Behaviour that previously would have been unthinkable is now accepted, like biased interventions by moderators or the use of insults during prime time.

"It is true that, lately, politics are as widespread on television as cooking or football shows with practically the same kind of structure," explains TV3 presenter Xavier Graset. "But that isn't negative. Debating is a good thing. And it has its roots in our literary circles and cafe culture. Also, this format has been very successful because it is much cheaper to produce."

After the 2008 economic recession that saw housing prices collapse and Spain's GDP plummet, media outlets were forced to find cheaper forms of programming. By 2011, the recession had spawned an anti-austerity movement, that took to the streets and infiltrated the TV studios.

Some channels saw an opportunity, producing tertulias that were political – with an element of showbiz. The industry was in crisis and found a winning formula.

Since the crisis, "the hours people spend watching TV has greatly increased" says professor Joan Lopez Alegre, University Abat Oliva. "Why? People don't have enough money to go out for dinner - sales of frozen pizza have rocketed. Appetite for politics has rocketed, too. A debate guarantees you a bigger audience than a blockbuster film or a good series, and on a smaller budget."

Tertulias aren't just Spain's new political battleground. They're a launching pad.

In 2013, a conservative TV channel, Intereconomia, signed up a relative unknown leftist professor of politics to counter right-wing voices on its best-known tertulia "El Gato al Agua".

Within a year, Pablo Iglesias became the third-most recognised commentator in the country, and the new political party he co-founded, Podemos, finished third in its debut election.

Political tertulias tend to fail Spanish audiences in the area of plurality, a problem affected publicly funded channels during the debate over Catalonian independence.

TVE is Spain's national public broadcaster. TV3 is its equivalent in Catalonia. The heads of both channels are appointed by politicians. TVE's tertulias were loaded with anti-independence voices, while TV3's tilted the other way, providing only token unionist voices, heavily outnumbered by the other side.

"In tertulias, there are always two ideological flanks, but they are uneven," explains Sanz. "About a quarter of tertulias invite a majority of speakers of one ideology, and just one representative of the counter-ideology, the so-called 'useful idiot'. In the rest of the tertulias, the moderator clearly supports one side. So while it looks like there is plurality, in fact, there isn't."

However, not everyone thinks this is a bad thing.

"Political debates and political communications in Spain have changed completely because of the TV tertulias and, moreover, there's no going back to the past. That is good for democracy," says Alegre.

"Spain is a country where we have always said that politicians are our main problem. But nevertheless, we have ended up with politicians having a presence in all channels at all hours. We have gone from being a country of bullfighters and flamenco singers, so to say, to be a country of footballers and politicians."

Cesar Gonzalez Anton, head of news, La Sexta
Marina Gonzalez Sanz, University of Seville
Joan Lopez Alegre, professor, University Abat Oliva
Xavier Graset, presenter, TV3

Source: Al Jazeera