MADRID (AP) — Bullfights returned live to Spanish state TV with a glittering and music-filled display on Wednesday evening, six years after the fights were banned from the widely watched public channel.
The broadcast featured three of Spain's most famous bullfighters and bulls by a renowned breeder, giving a boost to a tradition hit hard by declining popularity and a dire economic crisis.
Julian Lopez, known by his stage name of "El Juli," killed three hulking half-ton bulls raised by Victoriano del Rio.
He and fellow matador Alejandro Talavante delighted the crowd at northern city Valladolid and were carried out of the bullring on their assistants' shoulders, an honor accorded only to fighters that have thrilled their audiences.
Lopez and the other fighters had waived image rights payments demanded in better economic times to broadcast their battles, a decision that helped Spain's new austerity-minded conservative government in its drive to get the fights back on national TV and promote bullfighting as important cultural heritage.
"I am now conscious of the fact that the future of bullfighting is far more important than my own future," said Lopez.
The RTVE broadcast was a big victory for pro-bullfighting forces that saw bullfighting banned altogether this year in the northeastern region of Catalonia; it's a defeat for animal rights activists who denounce bullfighting as barbaric.
The transmissions were halted in 2006 by Spain's previous Socialist administration, which said they were costly and coincided with key TV viewing hours for young children.
But the Socialists were ousted in November by voters outraged over Spain's nose-diving economy, and the conservative Popular Party that won in a landslide is led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a staunch bullfighting defender.
Bullfighting aficionados hope the revived national broadcasts will spur renewed interest in the fights and reverse the trend of increasingly graying audiences seen in bullfighting rings with more and more empty seats. The tradition has also suffered deep cutbacks over the last several years by Spanish towns and cities that traditionally fund fights during the summer months.
But bullfighting is steeped in history, and the centuries-old events that inspired the likes of Goya, Picasso and Hemingway are also popular in Colombia, Ecuador, France and Mexico.
Wednesday's fight is one of the last of this year's season and RTVE hasn't yet said how many it will air next year, though supporters want frequent broadcasts, especially from the most famous bullrings in Madrid and Seville.
"Hopefully now through Spanish TV our media can once again generate enthusiasm among the people, the masses," said Del Rio, the breeder of the six bulls killed Wednesday by El Juli and two other matadors. Bullfighting, he added, "is something that changes every second, a moment of life, a momentary breath, that I believe will once again take root among the people."
Elite Spanish bullfighters are millionaires who can make more than €100,000 ($125,000 ) for each appearance. El Juli this year started paying half the cost of bullfight tickets bought by people age 30 and under. For Wednesday's event, he subsidized buses so Madrid fans 30 or under could get there for €25 ($30) each for the 420-kilometer (260-mile) round trip voyage.
Bullfighting foes who were energized last year after Catalonia became the second Spanish region to ban bullfights are decrying the live broadcasts as a waste of air time for spectacles squeezed by declining interest driven by generational change and hard times.
"It's a step backward from the achievement of removing bullfights from the television schedule," said Aida Gascon, a spokeswoman for the anti-bullfight group AnimaNaturalis.
She called the move a desperation effort to jumpstart interest in a sport that is doomed to fail, claiming "bullfights are followed mostly by tourists who attend once and never return, or by older people from ages 60 to 90. When all those people stop they will not be replaced by younger people."
Alfonso Nasarre, communications director of Spain's state TV, said the decision to include bullfights in the schedule once again was not politically motivated. "Accurate audience data will prove we are right," he said, but he would not confirm that bullfights will form part of the broadcaster's permanent output, saying only that "bullfight- related news will be given a higher priority."
Bullfighting advocates aren't easing up the pressure with their coup of getting the fights back on TV.
Last March they presented a petition with 500,000 signatures to Parliament, demanding that bullfighting be classified as being in the interest of preserving Spanish culture. Rajoy's administration is expected to introduce legislation that would give the events the designation, which would overturn the Catalonia ban and a 1991 bullfighting ban for Spain's Canary Islands.
There is no timeline set for when the legislation will be proposed, but passage is guaranteed because Rajoy's Popular Party has an absolute majority in Parliament, and opposing parties including the Socialists are expected to let members break ranks to vote in favor.
That drives home how Spain's ancient fascination with bulls, using the animals as a test of bravery, is still very much a part of the national identity. Bullfights and related events, such as the annual San Fermin Pamplona bull-runs, are also a multimillion-dollar industry and a major tourist draw.
Despite the six-year halt to live national broadcasts, Spaniards were still able to see bullfights on TV on pay channels and on regional public TV stations that decided to keep up the tradition. RTVE never stopped live coverage of Pamplona bull runs, and showed dramatic footage on its news programs of bullfighters being gored and bulls jumping into grandstands of panicked fans.
Even though Catalonia banned bullfights in rings, regional lawmakers passed separate legislation protecting "correbous," small town fiestas in which flaming balls of wax or fireworks are attached to the horns of bulls. Released in town squares or rings, the frightened bulls charge this way and that, taunted and teased by boisterous crowds.
Spain's bullfighting industry made up of breeders, matadors and promoters "saw themselves corralled by the government before, and now they have a government backing them," said Enrique Guerrero, a communications professor at the University of Navarra.
And with bullfighters giving up demands for payment in return to have their images on TV, Spain's government can defend the broadcasts if it has to as the country endures harsh austerity cuts, unemployment of nearly 25 percent and across the board cutbacks in cherished government programs like national health care and public education.
"They're saying there's no economic reason not to do it because it's cheap," Guerrero said.