Record, Bandeirantes, Manchete, SBT, CNT, TV Educativa are all TV networks
in Brazil. To the casual observer, however, it would seem that the country has
only one network: Globo. The TV conglomerate so completely and for so long
has obliterated the competition that in most homes the channel — naturally tuned
at Globo — never changes. But recently there’s a been a little panic at
Jardim Botânico, in Rio, the headquarters of the media giant: SBT, a poorer but daring
TV network has been making inroads in what was until recently exclusive territory
of Globo. The skirmishes have just started. Open and hard battle can’t be far away.
It’s war on the tube. Globo TV, the world’s fourth largest television network, for the longest time enjoying a
near monopoly on Brazil’s airwaves, has been feeling the pinch of competition. It comes from long-time rival SBT,
from start-ups in the digital satellite TV corner, and from changing viewer habits.
But the giant just won’t come down off the top without a big fight. TV Globo has been radically changing
its programming, and that’s no trivial matter. The network used to enjoy the preference of up to 80% of the
Brazilian audience by hammering the old formula of a barrage of never-ending soap-operas during prime time, only
interrupted by a news show with its eternal newscaster, and an expensive variety show on Sundays. Now, the weekend show
has been challenged and changed, the newscaster Cid Moreira was offered a symbolic retirement, and the
novelas, as the mostly syrupy soaps are locally known, became more serious and shorter.
The most direct challenger, SBT — short for
Sistema Brasileiro de Televisão — has been only capable of
generating one fifth of Globo’s 1995 annual income of $1,5 billion. But it is lead by a charismatic, shrewd
street-peddler-turned-showman, the smiley Sílvio Santos, and has strong numbers to show. Globo’s profitable Sunday afternoon
variety show Domingão do
Faustão, once alone at the top, now splits the viewers with SBT’s
Domingo Legal. Sunday car-racing shows on Globo TV used to lose in popularity only to morning mass, but that also has changed, and again
in favor of SBT.
The popularity of the Formula 1 car racing series has faded considerably after the death on live TV of Brazilian
three-time champion Ayrton Senna in an accident in Italy, in 1994. Senna left no likely successor on the Formula 1
racetracks. SBT, incidentally, carries live the Indy car races series, which now features six Brazilian pilots, two among them,
Gil de Ferran and André Ribeiro, with real chances to win along with big-name veteran Emerson Fittipaldi.
The contest in the telejournalism arena was based both on format and substance. SBT had nothing to lose when,
five years ago, it brought the daily newspaper editor Boris Casoy to lead its national telecast. Since its ratings were
virtually non-existent, Casoy could always act as he pleased, and his pleasure has been in maintaining an opinionated big
mouth that offered a sharp contrast to the gray style of Globo’s
Jornal Nacional, (National News).
During 26 years Globo TV showcased the services of Cid Moreira on its evening national telecast, basically
reading the copy, always in a grave tone, sometimes slipping on the pronunciation of proper names and fostering the
suspicion that an invisible hand from the government influenced the news presented. Since Casoy came on board at SBT,
Jornal Nacional has lost a fourth of its viewing public.
Last March, Globo tried to retire Moreira and replace him with a couple of professional anchors, radically
updating the delivery of its news stories. To avoid humiliating the old pro, Moreira was offered to appear on-air reading
the network’s editorials every so often, but the trick backfired. The remaining viewers, ever so loyal to the
gray-haired, 65-year-old TV personality, wanted him back. Knowing that the old formula had no future, and the new one
little sympathy, Globo TV is trying to compromise. Cid Moreira now reads editorials almost every night, but his show
has yet to recover the dominance of past times.
But this is not only a battle of two networks. Both Globo and SBT have been jabbed by new technologies. Cable
TV, late in its introduction in Brazil, is making important headway in the form of
pay-TV (see box) to viewers tired with the lack of choice and
with enough money to wire their homes — the ones most sought after by
the advertisers. But even cable and its rich audience is now being
leapfrogged by the digital images that bounce from the satellites
straight to the new, mini parabolic dishes.
What they’re all after is a public extremely selective in its buying power, but having in common a two
decade-long struggling economy that made television the entertainment of choice in Brazil. In the country’s main markets,
São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, each TV set stays on for an average of 7 hours daily. TV sets are all over: 82% of
Brazilian homes, about 32.6 million of them, have one. This includes miserable shacks with no sewer or running water, but
with an antenna sticking out of the roof.
In 1989, TV sets already were in 72% of homes, an extremely sharp increase from the 24% that existed in 1970.
It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that this year Brazil took third spot in the sales of television sets worldwide,
now behind only the US and Japan in that market.
That’s an empire once absolutely dominated by Globo, letting it charge close to $120 thousand for a minute of
national advertising during evening hours. Fighting for their share of public preference, the networks invest heavily.
SBT recently finished its Anhaguera project, a set of studios that cost $100 million. Globo TV also renovated its
facilities, bought new video equipment, computerized its operations and re-trained all its personnel — from managers to
actors — at a price tag of $200 million. How serious a business is this? As a comparison, the giant German
automaker Volkswagen invested $250 million to put together its new factory in Rio de Janeiro.
Making sure that all that money doesn’t go down the drain, the networks’ professionals have to stretch their
talents and exert controls unheard of in past seasons. Take the changes at Globo’s news department. Quality has been the
new buzzword, and not only for the prime time news, but also for the early evening local newscasts and the late
night national show.
Globo’s Operations vice-president, the all-powerful José Bonifácio de Oliveira Sobrinho, or
Boni, wanted to make absolutely sure that the new standards would be strictly met. But he was too busy to spare time flying to São
Paulo from his base in Rio de Janeiro to inspect the new set for the late night
Jornal da Globo. No sweat: the complete set was sent to Rio and
assembled on the same floor in Boni’s office building. Once approved by
the boss, it was dismantled and sent back to São Paulo to its permanent
Boni is also pointed out as the “inventor” of a sort of interactive TV. Globo’s viewers were presented with a
choice of three feature movies and could choose their favorite through a toll free call to the network. The movie chosen
would be on the air the next night. But that requires the use of a telephone, a staple of modern life that is behind TV sets
in a proportion of 3-to-1 in Brazilian homes.
For viewers with less choice, Globo spiked the content of some shows. It brought back from retirement the
popular comic Chico Anísio and his cast of crude, predictable characters in a time slot preferred mostly by the lower
middle class and working families. On the other end of the spectrum, and disguised as refined theater-for-TV, Globo is
now producing the works of the late playwright Nélson Rodrigues. In his own time, Rodrigues was known for
being polemic, to say the least, with his cast of philanderers, prostitutes, and illegitimate children. Nudity also has a
chance, here, but that’s not exactly a novelty on Brazilian TV (see box).
Nude or fully clothed pretty women have always helped ratings in Brazil, and that set off a tug-of-war between
Globo and SBT for the contract of Angélica, hostess of a children’s show that was sweeping the afternoon’s audience
with cartoon reruns associated to her hard work and mini-skirts. Blonde, pretty and soft-spoken, Angélica was trying
to emulate, on SBT, a format inaugurated by former model Xuxa at Globo: lots of singing, prizes, and plays in a
show with a live audience of elementary school-age kids. Extremely successful, Xuxa could afford to cut short her
schedule at Globo and get by with syndication of her reruns. Viewers flocked to Angélica, live on air everyday at SBT.
Globo TV reached out to her, and last April Angelica swapped studios.
Globo also reached into its deep pockets to try and buy out from SBT the entertainer that is eroding Sunday’s
most valuable time slots. But, this time, it was no go. Gouge Liberate, a trained journalist turned
animator de auditor, a sort of talk-show, variety show host combination, followed in the footsteps of the network owner, the ever-smiling
Sílvio Santos. He works his Sunday show with one eye on his live audience and the other on a TV set tuned to the rival
Globo TV and turned towards him in the aisle, so he can break for commercials on the spot, as soon as the other network
Gouge doesn’t want his viewers, at home, to flick the dial to the competitor during the breaks. His staff also has
access to instant audience ratings, provided by electronic boxes attached to 600 TV sets. Gouge watches the audience
meter during the performance of a singer or the news breaks on his show. If the numbers start to slip down he cuts
short whatever is on the air and comes back to the stage with his smile and a new subject.
That’s harder to do during the novelas, the Brazilian equivalent of American soap-operas. Once mostly
tear-jerkers produced in Mexico, the
novelas were updated during the late 70’s with the introduction of social themes and,
moved from the late afternoon time slots, taking over most of prime time. A common schedule on Brazilian TV includes
the 6 p.m. novela, the 7 p.m. novela, a break for the 8 o’clock national news, and then back to more
They don’t have the longevity of American soaps, that run for decades, but their season-long length seems to drag
on forever. Or, at least, until the audience gets tired of the story. If the ratings are good, the story keeps going. Once
they dip, it’s curtains down. Globo has had a comfortable lead here, and, to stay ahead, it innovates with the
introduction of costly, but short,
mini-novelas (see box).
SBT tried to hook the audience with historic, classic themes in its soaps, but never captured more than a tenth of
the viewers. Now it is swinging the story lines towards contemporary themes. In the late afternoon, SBT tries to
tease teenagers with Collage Brazil (“Brazilian High School”), a mix of pimples, heart-breakers and lost homework.
Later in the evening they had slated a novelty not in theme but in the merchandising of the
The story of the soap Antônio Alves, o Taxista
(“Antônio Alves, the taxi driver”) included takes in São Paulo and
in Buenos Aires, Argentina, making it a good candidate for syndication in other Latin American markets. But one of
their main attractions, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” bombshell Sônia Braga, didn’t like her character’s turn of fate
and decided to abandon the set. Nothing new to Brazilian viewers. It is common that, if management can’t work out
an actor’s new contract with the network, his character suddenly goes on a trip, never to return.
This time, rather than the characters, Brazilian viewers have embarked on a trip set up by the networks and
their backers. And even though some of the changes in programming have been hurried by the modern, high tech TV
from the satellites, the way the new syndicated foreign shows and movies are going to be delivered will resemble more
TV’s beginnings than its current state, in Brazil. Instead of being dubbed in Portuguese, as is the current custom, they
will carry subtitles — just like the first episodes of “I Love Lucy” in the late 50’s.
Dias Gomes, novela maker
Veteran screenwriter Dias Gomes, a specialist in the sugary, never ending Brazilian
novelas, has the distinction of being the only professional in
his field to ever have one of his soaps completely nixed by the
military power that dominated Brazil during the 70’s. “Roque Santeiro”,
a sharp commentary on Brazilian social relations, was kept under wraps
for years until the federal government relaxed censorship. After that,
it was one of the biggest and longest running successes on TV when it
was aired by Globo network in the early 80’s and it is now being
produced for theater. Its opening is planned for October in Rio.
Once again, this year, the author innovated with a play made for TV with dates set for its beginning and ending,
as opposed to the open ended soaps that sail with good ratings . The
mini-novela “O Fim do Mundo” (The End of
the World) was set for 35 chapters, or roughly two months of commercial life. Since people follow his works with
almost religious zeal, Dias Gomes could consider himself a leader. But not him:
“I am not the kind of person who thinks that television directs peoples’ thinking”, says Gomes. “I think people
dictate television’s direction. If any
novela goes beyond the moral limits of behavior, it means that such limits were
updated by, at least, a good chunk of our society. And that’s easy to understand. Television, and I mean commercial TV,
is meant to attract the biggest possible audience and not scare it away. Therefore, it is the audience that sets the rules.”
Gomes believes that the Brazilian prime time soaps will still reign for a long time to come, since it still is the
main offering of the country’s network TV. “The motivation is commercial. The objective, let’s not kid ourselves, is
to conquer higher ratings and increase profits. The TV
novela is, perhaps, the most profitable product on TV”.
But that isn’t sufficient to make it a good product. “It is stagnated, it stopped in the 80’s”, says Gomes. The
renewed competition among networks might be a chance for rejuvenating the genre. “It will open up the field for authors,
actors, directors. Who knows, competition might give the
novelas new horizons, and take them out of the current doldrums”.
R and X-rated.
All in a day’s work
Nudity, rough language, adult themes? Compared to American standards, prime time Brazilian TV could be rated
a solid R, and that’s nothing new to local viewers. It has been ten years now since female pubic hair was first
displayed during prime time, innocently in a commercial for a showerhead manufacturer.
The take was as brief as a second and the model was just in a corner of the picture, but the debate it generated in
the press made sure that nobody missed it, and guaranteed handsome returns for Lorenzetti, the advertiser. Today
a commercial like that would be a yawner. Nudity has already dominated the battle for ratings and the skin displays
have come closer up, become more detailed and are taking bigger slices of time on the screen.
Hints of things to come were appearing in the closing act of one of the most successful comedy acts on Globo TV,
the Monday night “Viva o Gordo” (Hurray for the
Fatso), in the early 80s. Jô Soares, now converted to a late
night interviewer, would tease the audience with a beautiful model ready to get undressed, with the act being
predictably interrupted by some comic incident. When Jô packed up his show and moved to rival SBT, the tease was
readily completed with a strip that became a staple during his comedy hour. But those were programs for time slots when
most kids and many adults were already in bed, and the battle for ratings started early on, during the
novelas tucked before and after the 8 o’clock news.
But the most `creative’ act came from now almost defunct Manchete network. Why not stage a soap in the fringes
of the rainforest? The naturalistic theme was a score with viewers, not only for the green outdoors but because the
main characters frequently had to take a break from the location’s hot weather going skinny-dipping in the nearest
creek. Globo TV’s reaction was `in-your-face’, and the opening credits of its next main soap opera,
Tieta, would show a big pair of breasts dancing on the screen, day in and day out for a whole six month season.
Since that, it’s getting harder to find an audience shocker. That’s probably why an educational campaign for the
use of condoms had the actor talking to his penis (the penis wasn’t displayed, though), or a lingerie manufacturer sells
its product with scenes of a same-sex marriage with bride and groom, both female, in their underwear. Manchete TV,
the one that innovated with the nude swims, had its Carnaval coverage in February open every night with a female
dancer wearing only body paint and lipstick. And that’s not much, since explicit, X-rated movies can be now watched
on Bandeirantes network, every Saturday at midnight.
The hottest thing on TV, in Brazil, does not come through the airwaves anymore, but through cable. Or
microwave. Or the new small satellite dishes. As a common denominator they have the restricted access — it’s the
TV paga, or pay-TV, the fastest growing segment of the economy in Brazil. It doesn’t come cheap: basic service with four channels
(two HBOs, MTV and ESPN Brasil) starts at over $25 monthly after steep activation fees ranging from $300 to
$900, depending on the system. But the providers can hardly keep up with the demand.
One and a half million homes already have pay-TV in Brazil, and if the number looks small, the pace of its
introduction is not. It is estimated that the number will reach the 2 million mark by December ’96, twice as many as at the end
of 1995. Only the Internet shows a faster growth rate, but nobody has made money off it, yet. On pay-TV the
money glistens. Its estimated proceeds, this year, should reach $1 billion.
The newest sector is the digital satellite TV, the one that employs the 21-inch mini dish and reaches paying
subscribers anywhere in the country without the need of cabling poles. It is a fairly new gadget even in the US, where it
was introduced less than two years ago, and it has yet to be commercially available in Europe or Asia. But since July
15 it started being installed in Brazilian homes, by a consortium led by the publishing giant Editora Abril.
The first to get the mini-dish, and as a gift, was Brazil’s president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He was present at
the opening, in June, of the transmission center built in São Paulo by TVA, the company started by the Abril group
in partnership with the American Hughes Communications, a GM subsidiary, and two other biggies in Latin
American TV markets, the Mexican Univision, and Venezuela’s Grupo Cisneros.
The enterprises’s initial investment is estimated at $500 million. They will be associated to the DirectTV
system, capable of delivering 72 video and 30 audio channels. TVA wishes to sign up close to 200,000 subscribers yet this
year, and reach the 5 million mark by the turn of the century, leapfrogging the deployment of the more traditional cable
TV. Not to be outdone, Globo network is also working in the area and prepares an August launch of a similar service,
in association with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Mexico’s Televisa.
The presence of such heavy-weights scared
away the competition in the area. When the Brazilian telecommunications
autarchy, Embratel, started to organize the distribution of the digital
channels in the beginning of 1995, four local companies stepped forward
with an eye on the business. It took a meeting of the Australian
Murdoch and Globo’s eternal owner Roberto Marinho, in July of that
year, to narrow the field to only one more participant, Abril’s TVA
Abril has rounded up the largest circle of partners, so far. Besides the ones in the mini-dish business, TVA has 11
other foreign investors. In the group holding company, named TEVECAP, are mostly the Americans: Chase
Manhattan Bank, Falcon Cable, ABC-Disney and Hearst Communications. In the sub-holding that works with cable TV in
the profitable São Paulo rural market are the Canadians Greensyan and Bell Canada. TVA’s Porto Alegre, in the
South, is associated with Transglobal, and in the North, with Warburg Pincus, both from the US. They all benefit from
the regulation for the pay-TV companies, that lets foreign money hold up to 83% of these companies’ capital — as
long as the remaining 17% of the investment is coughed up by Brazilians and it represents half plus 1% of the