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TV Globo and the soft power of the telenovela

The articulation of cultural industries and government through corporatism definitely applies to the television era of both national communication and external soft power in Brazil, as does another important concept for understanding the relationship of media to government in Latin America, clientelism. These ideas apply, particularly, to TV Globo, which became the dominant agent of Brazilian national identity and soft power from the late 1960s on, though there was an important era of Brazilian television in the 1950s-1960s before Globo. The rapid growth of the middle class increased demand for high-quality television news and entertainment. Several television networks, including some that ultimately failed, like TV Tupi and TV Excelsior, created vital genres, including the telenovela, the live variety show, music shows, distinctive patterns of comedy, etc. (Bucci, 1996; Silva Júnior, 2001).

Many of these genres were the result of complex interactions with both the US and other Latin American countries in the 1950s and 1960s, such as the telenovela, which was created in Cuba at the behest of Colgate-Palmolive in the 1950s to sell soap in Latin America (Rivero, 2009), but which was radically adapted and hybridized, first in Cuba and then further as it spread by scripts, émigré professionals and local adaptations to the rest of Latin America (Sinclair and Straubhaar, 2013). Brazil’s version of the telenovela, along with Mexico’s, was to become a huge export product and source of soft power, first within Latin America, then for Brazil in the Portuguese-speaking world, and for both in much of the rest of the world, starting in the 1990s (Sinclair and Straubhaar, 2013). The key to that was the rise ofTV Globo and its version of the telenovela.

In terms of the continuity of corporatist relations between media and the state, TV Globo was the favoured partner of the military governments between 1964 and 1985.TV Globo’s owner, Roberto Marinho had favoured the initial military coup, as did many in the business elite of Brazil and was a personal friend of some of the leaders in the Castello Branco-Geisel-Figueiredo wing of the military governments (Wallach, 2011). More than anything, they shared a Cold War capitalist vision of Brazilian development, in which government, media, advertising and industry cooperated to expand the consumer economy so that Brazilians would be attracted to it rather than to the ideas of socialism (Salles, 1975; Mattos, 1982). They also shared the goal, noted above for radio, to expand television coverage so that all Brazilians had a Portuguese-language national network to watch.

In terms of the corporatist relationship, TV Globo provided ideological support for and promotion of a consumer society, while the military governments provided the technological infrastructure: expanding television signals across Brazil, government advertising and favourable treatment of Globo initiatives that were illegal or unpopular. For example, the military government ignored the fact that the initial joint venture between TV Globo and Time-Life Inc. violated the Brazilian Constitution’s provisions against foreign ownership of media.The military tolerated the joint venture from 1964 to 1970, until TV Globo was up and running then applied pressure to get Time-Life to withdraw (Wallach, 2011).

The military governments provided a rapidly widening telecoms infrastructure of microwave towers and satellite coverage to enable TV Globo and others to reach genuine national coverage, as local businessmen and even mayors in the 1970s set up stations to re-broadcast satellite signals, a phenomenon highlighted in the popular film, Bye Bye Brasil (1980). For its part, aside from TV Excelsior, which the military shut down over political differences with its owners,TV Globo was the only network with a clear commercial vision of a national market and networked operations to sell national advertising. It took quick advantage of this infrastructure to create national coverage, while Chateaubriand’s TV Tupi floundered amid a decentralized and poorly managed network, and went bankrupt in 1981 (Straubhaar,

1984). The government also steered advertising toward TV Globo, at a point where government companies, trading companies and holding companies were involved in nearly half the overall economy (Mattos, 1984).

TV Globo represented another phase of creating cultural power by hybridizing Brazilian culture with both commercial and artistic forms and practices from the US. Key to the process was Joe Wallach, who came from Time-Life to TV Globo, becoming Globo’s head of commercial operations, advertising and network development. He dumped Time-Life’s initial strategy of showing US-imported programmes and invested their money instead in hiring Brazilian programmers, producers, directors and writers to create Brazilian programming that would be more popular (Wallach,201 l).They started with live music and variety then focused on telenovelas, bringing in skilled but controversial left-wing scriptwriters, like Dias Gomes, from 1969 (Sacramento, 2012) to make the telenovelas more focused on key national themes and images, right at the peak of increased military regime censorship. The military permitted this, while keeping censorship fairly tight, gambling along with TV Globo’s management that, even though these writers would be critical of Brazilian politics and a number of issues, they would also help modernize the content of television, promote the idea of Brazil as an enjoyable lively culture and create high quality programmes to carry the advertising and product placement that would promote a consumer economy and an acceptance of consumer capitalism (Sacramento, 2012).

This new pattern was consolidated between 1969 and 1974. Many of Brazil’s best writers came to work for Globo and the company emphasized the drama to improve the quality of programming, what they called the Global pattern of quality (Oliveira Sobrinho, 2011). For the writers, many of whom had been involved with left wing popular theatre, this opportunity was ‘the popular theater of their dreams’ (Gomes, 1998). Their shows proved very popular, expanding both Globo’s audience and the advertising market, consolidating a consumer economy and indirectly preparing for a wave of telenovela exports by creating a distinctive telenovela.They were so valuable to Globo that, when the writers were threatened by military officials, unhappy with their criticisms of the regime, Globo’s owner, Roberto Marinho, reportedly faced down the officials, saying, ‘You take care of your communists, I’ll take care of mine’ (Wallach, 2011).

Although the regional market for television in Latin America had been created and first dominated by telenovela scripts from Cuba between 1950 and 1959 (Rivero, 2007; Straubhaar, 2011), that phase ended with Fidel Castro’s take-over and transformation of Cuban television into a supportive vehicle for his revolution (Rivero, 2015). The early peak of telenovela popularity came in 1974-1975 with O Bern Amado (The Well Beloved), by Dias Gomes. It was the first telenovela in colour, depicting a mythical small town with a corrupt mayor (symbolizing the military and authoritarian government) and many colourful characters. It was a huge hit both in Brazil and in much of the rest of Latin America, starting in 1975.This began an era in which Brazil and Mexico rose to be top of a pyramid of television flow in Latin America as the dominant exporters to the region (Roncagliolo, 1996), while importing fairly little, except from the US, which was shown mostly outside prime time (Straubhaar, 1984).

As the two largest economies in Latin America, Brazil and Mexico had the market base for mass television production (Sinclair et al., 1996; Sinclair and Straubhaar, 2013).They also had prolific theatre, film and music industries to draw on, as well as leading television networks, Televisa and TV Globo, with corporatist relationships with governments that helped them grow in export power. Argentina and Venezuela were the next most prolific producers in the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America (Roncagliolo, 1996). Since then Chile and Colombia have risen into the second tier (Straubhaar, 2007, Piñón, 2014) while Venezuela has fallen in production (Acosta-Alzuru, 2013).

Although Brazilian telenovelas and other programmes had to be dubbed into Spanish, they were much more similar to and relevant to the rest of Latin America than were those from the US, as the theory of cultural proximity predicted (Straubhaar, 1991). Even after translation, the jokes made more sense, the people and landscapes looked more similar, and there was a great deal of common history to draw on. However, US exports continued to be very popular, often more popular than imports from the rest of Latin America, building on the long history of familiarity with imported US culture in the region. Although Brazilian and Mexican soft power rose considerably in Latin America from the 1970s on through the export of television, US soft power through television continued very strong in the region as well.

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