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BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - Every Sunday evening up to 4.3 million people in Spain tune into a quirky but hard-hitting news show that has become an unlikely television success as crisis-plagued Spaniards try to figure out how their country got into the mess it is in.
On "Salvados", which means "Saved" in English, journalist Jordi Evole, 38, asks experts and ordinary people disarmingly simple questions to explain the costly bailout of Spain's banks or the looming hole in the pension system.
The program - with a style similar to the documentaries of U.S. activist filmmaker Michael Moore - has grabbed an audience share as high as 20 percent. It is the most-viewed Spanish television show on Sundays and as high as any other news show on any channel during the week.
Evole's informal approach - he wears a sweater with elbow patches - and willingness to take on tough topics have resonated in a country where a quarter of the workforce is jobless, bankruptcies are at a record high, banks have been bailed out, and the economy has been shrinking or stagnant for five years.
The crash - and drastic state budget cuts - followed a long economic boom in which Spaniards got used to get-rich-quick property investments and massive state spending on airports, highways, culture and arts, sports and stadiums.
"You know when a cartoon character runs into a wall, a big bump appears on his head and stars spin around him. Well, we're at that point in Spain, saying 'what the heck happened to us?'" Evole told Reuters about the inspiration for Salvados.
The Barcelona-based show has been on the air for five years, but its ratings took off last year as word-of-mouth spread.
Beyond the millions that watch the show on Sunday night, many more follow Salvados on the web and on social media. Evole has 911,000 Twitter followers who make sure the show is Spain's top "trending" topic on Twitter every Sunday night.
Luis Fernandez, 48, who worked in public housing for 24 years and lost his job a month and a half ago, is a typical fan. He feels Salvados both reflects his predicament and opens his eyes on important issues.
"The situation I'm in now was unthinkable to me just five years ago. It's a tragedy," Fernandez said. "No one gives you information about what's really going on in Greece and Portugal, the truth is people are scared," he said.
Many Spaniards fear Spain, which is wrestling with a high public deficit but has so far avoided a full international bailout, could follow Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus into deeper problems.
"In these times of tension, people need to know how things really work," said Javier Ganuza, 57, who has a business that repairs and sells electronics. He began watching the show to keep up with his children and friends who were always discussing it.
Spain is a relatively young democracy and the crisis has made people start to question all of the institutions that have brought it stability since the end of fascist rule in the 1970s: approval ratings have plunged for political parties, local and national government and even the once beloved royal family.
"Spain is going through a time when citizens are really questioning things. We are part of those people. We do the program to know what is going on and understand it. We ask really basic questions because we don't understand a lot of what's going on," Evole said.
Evole said one of his main goals is for Spain to hang on to its treasured social services, which are being scaled back with budget cuts.
The leftward slant of Salvados - which has criticized the government's electric power, education and other policies - does not make it popular with the centre-right government, which has faced a wave of demonstrations against unpopular cost-cutting measures.
"He asks false questions, he's always got the advantage," Education and Culture Minister Jose Ignacio Wert told Reuters of Evole. The host has acknowledged that he edits interviews to make his point.
Wert, an accomplished parliamentary debater, said he was sorely tempted to test wits with Evole on the show, which he says can be original and funny.
"Some foolish people around me in the education department were really for me going on the show but my son, who is more sensible, told me not even to think about it" said Wert.
Overall advertising spending in Spain continues to fall - it now stands at half of what it was in 2008 when the crisis began - but Salvados's popularity has brought rising revenues.
That gives the show a budget for a 30-person team and for travel to Germany, Iceland and elsewhere to show how other countries have dealt with banking and pension crises.
The show is a major hit for La Sexta, a channel that belongs to Atresmedia, which in turn is controlled by privately held Grupo Planeta. La Sexta has an average 6 percent audience share, which triples when Salvados is on.
"He puts on this naive look and tells very dramatic, very complex things, very simply," said Ricardo Vaca, president of Barlovento Comunicaciones a media consulting firm that produces audience share numbers for Spanish television.
"He's become a household name. These are issues people want to know about," Vaca said.
Editing by Paul Day and Peter Graff