“We want you to set up a continuous information television channel”. This was the ambitious objective proposed in his new office by a recently appointed director general of Radio Televisión Española, Fernando López-Amor, to a well-known journalist from Lyon, during his holidays in Spain in May 1997. An unexpected proposal in a visit that was expected to be brief.
The astonished candidate was Pedro González, co-founder of Euronews and then director of its global newsroom. One of the fathers of the first news channel in Europe, he says today that it simply occurred to him “to drop by Prado del Rey to meet the new director general, as Televisión Española was one of the main shareholders of Euronews”.
Goal: build a TV “from scratch” in less than four months
The candidate showed restrained interest as the director general unpacked the idea. “We want a flagship news channel, but we have to build it all from scratch,” warned the CEO. The Euronews founder’s cautious assent froze when he learned the dreaded deadline: less than four months. “We want it to go on air on 15 September,” the date of the launch of Via Digital, Telefonica’s satellite pay-TV platform. It took González 24 hours to make a decision. Overnight, he and his family moved to Madrid to embark on the promising new television adventure in Spain.
The new leader of the project explains that “in 48 hours I designed a plan that included the structure we had tested at Euronews. I was given an office in the secondary office of the general director and I started to form the team, trying to convince people in the corridors of Televisión Española of the great opportunity to join the project”. Between informal meetings in Torrespaña and public competitions, González managed to form a team of more than 40 professionals, with the added merit of being “the first newsroom, before Telecinco or Antena 3, to be digital, without editors and without people behind the cameras on set”.
There was an obstacle on the roadmap. The promoter of the television station recounts that “they told me that we had the space reserved for Informe Semanal available for the channel, but when I saw it, I realised that they had to lift it. It was a tremendous mess”. The tension of the countdown worsened.
The architect of the channel under construction explains that “I dedicated 20 hours a day to it, practically without sleep, together with Juan Manuel Fernández Cuesta [the deputy director]. We both did the tests and I don’t think we made a mistake”.
24 Hours’, one of the world’s first continuous news channels, is born
On 15 September 1997 at 14:00 TVE’s Canal 24 horas was born. The first pioneering ‘all news’ channel in Spain and one of the first in Europe, ahead of BBC News (UK) or RAI News (Italy). The first were: CNN (1980), Euronews (1993), the first publicly owned, with Pedro González at the helm; La Chaîne Info LCI, of the private French group TF1 (1994) and, in fourth place – and the second at public level – the TVE Channel (1997).
Journalist Ana Alarcón during the first broadcast of Canal 24 Horas. Photo: RTVE.
During the founding stage, renowned professionals such as the current TVE correspondents, Mavi Doñate and Marta Carazo, and the current director of the channel, Cristina Ónega, worked on the programme.
Cristina Ónega: “24 Horas has changed because society has changed”.
25 years after that historic birth, the channel has managed to double its staff to offer a signal to more than 12 million homes in 46 countries. Its current director – appointed five years ago – talks to DIRCOMFIDENCIAL in her office, invaded by multiple screens broadcasting live signals.
Cristina Ónega explains that “the Channel has changed because society has changed. When I started here, we worked only with teletypes and there was no Twitter, now we are ‘hyperconnected’, we have messages everywhere and that forces us to be very fast. Our competition now is the digital media”.
The journalist, a home-grown journalist, believes that “the adrenaline of getting the story out as soon as possible and developing the last hour is the exciting thing. It requires a great deal of improvisation and imagination. When you get to work you don’t know where the day is going to go, that’s the beauty of journalism”.
“We have to be an informative reference for young people.”
The frenetic pace of news alerts dominates the director’s day-to-day work. The day starts at 7 a.m. “with a first meeting with the editors to draw a picture of the day, a minute, which with a bit of luck is completed by 12 a.m. From then on, it’s a blank sheet of paper (laughs)”. Afternoons “tend to be quieter and lend themselves more to reflection. The channel conducts between 50 and 100 interviews a week, a lot of voices to complement the information. At the end of the afternoon, it’s time to coordinate the early morning team. During this time, Ónega wants to redouble his efforts to “position ourselves in the American prime time, at 2 a.m., since America is very important for us, where we are present in more than three million homes”.
The young audience is another of the challenges for the future of the channel, which aspires to “be a news reference for them, so that if an important event occurs, they will turn directly to 24 horas. We have to work in this field and we are looking for ways to do it”, concludes the director.
A dozen directors
The Canal’s management office has witnessed the different strategies, problems and styles of ten top managers: Pedro González (1997-1999), Pedro Roncal (1999-2004), Juan Cristóbal Vidal (2004-2208), Juan Pedro Valentín (2008-2009), Vicente Vallés (interim in 2009), Asun Gómez Bueno (2009-2012), Sergio Martín (2012-2016), Moisés Rodríguez (interim in 2016), Álvaro Zancajo (2016-2018) and Cristina Ónega (2018-currently).
Top left to right: Pedro González, Pedro Roncal, Juan Cristóbal Vidal, Juan Pedro Valentín and Vicente Vallés. Below from left to right: Asun Gómez Bueno, Sergio Martín, Moisés Rodríguez, Álvaro Zancajo and Cristina Ónega.
Juan Pedro Valentín: “24 Horas is an unbeatable news machine”.
In the middle of the Canal’s history -between 2008 and 2009-, RTVE hired journalist Juan Pedro Valentín, who had just come from directing the launch on newsstands of the daily newspaper Público, as host.
When he landed in Torrespaña’s newsroom, he realised that the channel, which he describes as “the perfect option for keeping the pulse of the news, with an unbeatable news machine”, needed to invest in more news programmes to complement “the news roundtable format”.
Juan Pedro Valentín.
With the then director of news at TVE between 2004 and 2012, Fran Llorente, he explains that “we took a global approach to transform it. We had to send out the message that the channel was modernity and renovation”. One of the ways to achieve this was to reinforce its prime time offer, through “its star programme”, La Noche en 24 Horas, which at that time was directed and presented by Vicente Vallés. “We had to pull out all the stops in that programme, to get that slot off the ground, because we thought that from that appointment, from that hook, Canal 24 Horas would be on the map”, he says.
Xabier Fortes: “The Channel enhances public television”.
La Noche en 24 Horas is now the flagship of the channel. Since 2020 and between 2011 and 2012, after Vicente Vallés joined Antena 3, this programme has been presented by one of TVE’s most iconic faces, Xabier Fortes. He tells DIRCOMFIDENCIAL that “I owe all my professional projection, above all, to Canal 24 Horas and the opportunity offered to me by Fran Llorente, Begoña Alegría [TVE news director between 2018 and 2020], Pep Vilar [current news director] and Cristina Onega, who supported me in everything”.
He believes that the channel offers “a service that enhances public television” and that its future “must be the same as it is today: to be there when any citizen wants to know what is happening in their country at a specific time”.
Achieving consensus and gaining influence, among the main challenges for management
Juan Pedro Valentín, who currently directs the Mediaset newspaper Nius, says that the greatest complexity of directing the public information space was “finding consensus between representatives of all kinds, such as political parties, trade unions and organisations. You have a set of powers and counterpowers that make everything very complex and, as a director, you are always going to be criticised. Unlike in the private sector, power in TVE is much more diffuse and decisions are subject to constant scrutiny.
Valentín was in the post for a year, after agreeing to replace José María Izquierdo as head of news at Cuatro and CNN+, the rival channel to 24 Horas between 1999 and 2010. The audiences of both channels, Valentín explains, “were around 1% of the screen share, approximately [a level that the channel still maintains today]. These are low audiences compared to the 15-20% of the generalist channels, because we focus on a specific audience, which wants to be constantly informed”. In this respect, Fortes argues that “we cannot compete with generalists, who are there for something else. Our mission is to continue to have a qualitatively influential audience”.
The most memorable episodes from the faces of 24 Horas
Beatriz Pérez Aranda
“During the Filomena storm [in January 2021] many of my colleagues could not go to Torrespaña because they could not leave their homes. As I live very close, I was able to get there, and I was the only presenter. The people who worked at night couldn’t go home, so they continued working despite their tiredness. It was a spectacular moment. All the colleagues who couldn’t make it were doing interviews from home. I was live theonega whole time. I am left with the human courage and the great team we have, especially in extreme moments, such as 11-M or the Angrois accident. I feel very proud and happy”.
“Here I have counted approximately 800,000 news items. I wascristina marked, for example, by the attacks on the Ramblas in Barcelona in 2017. I was in make-up and hairdressing when they called me to tell me that I had to go down to the set because there had been a series of attacks in that part of Spain. Little else did we know. I remember how I ran from there with my hair almost uncombed and how I sat in the chair in front of the camera with hardly any data. We went live with the monitors switched off and with a brief three-line EFE teletype. We managed to broadcast the whole horror for five hours straight.
“I arrived in Madrid on the day the State of Alarm was declared [March 2020]. The most important period for me was the day-to-day broadcasting of the pandemic. When the death toll was published every day at 11 o’clock in the morning, all of us in the newsroom were heartbroken. We could tell each other everything by looking at each other. Those months were very intense. I am proud of the team that went everywhere to give us the latest news. We also had other memorable coverage, such as the farewell to Donald Trump and the Barcelona bombings.
“I reported live the death of Queen Elizabeth II [last week], a historic moment. The Channel was the first television or media outlet in Spain to report the news. Here I started presenting the weather and one of the news presenters lost her voice. Alarmed, I asked what we were going to do without her and I had to fill in for her. The coverage I remember most in these 25 years is that of 9/11, before Ana Blanco covered it on La 1 and, more recently, I remember the first days of the war in Ukraine. There was a lot of nervousness in the newsroom. I could see Cristina Ónega running from one side to the other. It was something we hadn’t faced in recent years. I was shocked.