Obituary: Emilio Azcarraga

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The Independent Online
Emilio Azcarraga Milmo was an autocratic billionaire who dominated Mexican broadcasting by combining low-grade television shows with political favouritism.

Azcarraga, known as "El Tigre" for his fearsome business acumen and a shock of white hair, created an empire known as Grupo Televisa. It included four television networks with about 300 television stations throughout Mexico, 17 radio stations, numerous magazines and newspapers, three record companies, two leading football teams, America and Necaxa, and the Aztec stadium, as well as Mexico City's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Azcarraga built Televisa into the world's largest producer of Spanish- speaking television and in 1996 Forbes magazine estimated his personal fortune at $2bn, one of the largest in Latin America. "He didn't do anything small," said Jacobo Zabludovsky, Azcarraga's business partner and anchor of Televisa's nightly news. "Everything he did was planned on a grand scale."

His power depended upon close ties to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the right-wing Mexican party that has held power for decades, and he made no bones about the backing Televisa gave to PRI candidates and policies while suppressing news about the opposition. When, at a private dinner in 1993, the former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari asked powerful businessman to contribute $25m each to the PRI, Azcarraga pledged $70m. "I am a soldier of the president of the government," he was quoted as saying. "I, and all of you, have earned so much money over the past six years that I think we have a big debt to this government."

In return for his support, successive presidents helped Azcarraga maintain unchallenged control of the media and, even after public protest forced Televisa to introduce journalistic objectivity to its coverage, he remained their loyal supporter. The Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo said in a statement after his death last Wednesday that Azcarraga had been a "great businessman" who had "brought international prestige to Mexico."

In addition to influencing the political landscape of Mexico, Azcarraga sought to shape the view Mexicans have of themselves, with immensely popular television shows that relied heavily on game shows featuring saucy showgirls, mariachi bands and overwrought "telenovella" soap operas.

His philosophy was simple; he once told a meeting of soap-opera stars that the country was a nation of poor people who had suffered abuse and would inevitably continue to do so. "The television has the obligation to entertain those people, to take away from them their sad reality and their difficult future," he said. "I mean the middle and lower classes. Rich people like me are not clients of television because we never go out to buy anything."

Azcarraga demanded unquestioning obedience and absolute loyalty from his television stars and should they appear on any other network they would be summarily banned for life from Televisa. His style was notoriously belittling and he kept a tall wooden chair in his office in which those due for a reprimand would be told to sit so that their feet could not touch the ground, re- ducing them to sense of infantile helplessness.

But he was not always successful. In 1990 he launched a daily sports newspaper in the United States, the National, which closed 17 months later with losses of $100m and in 1986 was forced to sell his US television interests on anti-monopoly grounds.

Azcarraga was born, as legend would have it, the same month that his father, Emilio Azcarraga Viduarreta, bought Radio XEW, a Mexico City station that became the first stone in the family empire. The elder Azcarraga, who started out as a shoe salesman in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, was openly critical of his son and referred to him as "my son, the idiot".

He was sent to a military academy in the United States to toughen him up but he never graduated. Despite reservations, Azcarraga joined his father's company as a salesman at the age of 21 and took over as chairman in 1964.

In his private life Azcarraga indulged the opulent privileges - and privacy - of great wealth, amassing five wives, a good deal of property, private jets and at least one 240ft yacht. On 3 March in Los Angeles he made a rare public appearance to announce he would be handing over the running of Televisa to his 29 year-old son, Emilio Azcarraga Jean.

Edward Helmore

Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, businessman: born 6 September 1930; married five times (one son, three daughters); died Miami 16 April 1997.