Brazil has one of the world's largest and most productive commercial television systems. Its biggest television network, TV Globo, is the fourth largest commercial network in the world. Brazil is also one of the largest television exporters within Latin America and around the world, particularly of telenovelas, the characteristic Latin American prime time serials, which have become popular in a many countries.

Though Brazilian television began in 1950, it remained urban and elitist. Sets were expensive, programs were broadcast live, and transmitters covered only major centers. As in many other settings, that era of early television produced quite a bit of classic drama, and during this period local traditions in variety, news, drama and telenovelas were established. The advent of videotape around 1960 opened Brazil to imported programs. Again, typical of countries then developing their television systems, the imports dominated programming for much of the decade, but their presence also stimulated some efforts at creating local networks. Two major early networks, TV Tupi and TV Excelsior, operated at that time.

Television became a truly mass medium in Brazil earlier than in most developing countries. The military governments which took power in 1964 saw televisual communication as a potential tool for creating a stronger national identity, creating a broader consumer economy, and controlling political information. The military pushed television deeper into the population by subsidizing credit for set sales, by building national microwave and satellite distribution systems, and by promoting the growth of one network they chose as a privileged partner. TV Globo, which also started in 1964, created the first true national network by the late 1960s. Censorship of news was extensive under the military governments between 1966 and 1978, but they also encouraged national television program production. In the early 1970s, several government ministers pushed the commercial networks hard to develop more Brazilian programming and reduce reliance on imported programs, particularly those that contained violence.

The 1960s represented a formative period for genre development. Brazilian telenovelas had largely been patterned after those in other Latin American countries, even using imported scripts, but during these years they were developed into a considerably more sophisticated genre by TV Excelsior in São Paulo and TV Globo in Rio. A key turning point was the 1968 telenovela, Beto Rockefeller, a well-produced story reflecting a singular Brazilian personality, the Rio good-lifer or boa vida. By the 1970s, telenovelas were the most popular programs and dominated prime time on the major networks, TV Globo and TV Tupi. TV Globo, in particular, began to attract major writers and actors from both film and theater to also work in telenovelas. The Brazilian telenovelas became good enough, as commercial television entertainment, to be exported throughout Latin America and into Europe, Asia and Africa.

Another major genre of the 1960s was the show de auditório, a live variety show mixing games, quizzes, amateur and professional entertainers, comedy, and discussion. The shows de auditório have been extremely popular with the lower-middle and lower-classes, and, according to analyses such as Sérgio Miceli's 1972 A Noite da Madrinha (Evening with the Godmother), played an extremely important role in drawing them into television viewing.

The years 1968 to 1985 constitute Brazilian television's second phase. In this period TV Globo dominated both the audience and the development of television programming. It tended to have a 60-80% share of the viewers in the major cities at any given time. TV Globo was accused during this period of representing the view of the government, of being its mouthpiece. Other broadcast television networks found themselves pursuing smaller, more specific audience segments largely defined by social class. SBS (Sílvio Santos) targeted a lower middle class, working class and poor audience, mostly with variety and game shows. The strategy gained it a consistent second place in ratings in most of the 1980s and 1990s. TV Manchete targeted a more elite audience initially, with news, high budget telenovelas, and imported programs, but found the segment too small to gain adequate advertiser support. TV Bandeirantes tended to emphasize news, public affairs and sports. All three ultimately wished to pursue a general audience with general appeal programming, such as telenovelas, but generally discovered that such efforts still did not gain an audience sufficient to pay for the increased programming costs.

Brazilian television since 1985 has gone through a third phase, marked by its role in the transition to a new civilian republic. In 1984, TV Globo initially supported the military government against a campaign for direct election of a civilian government, while other media, including other television networks, many radio stations, and most of the major newspapers supported the change. Perceiving that it might literally lose its audience to the competition, Globo switched sides and supported transition to a civilian regime, which was indirectly elected in a compromise situation. The new political circumstances immediately reduced political censorship and pressure on broadcasters.

The fourth phase of Brazilian television has been its internationalization. The importation of television programs into Brazil declined from the 1970s through the 1980s, as Brazilian networks produced more of their own material. TV Globo often filled 12-14 hours a day with indigenous productions. TV Globo and other networks also began to export programs, particularly telenovelas, and Brazilian exports of programming to the rest of the world soon became economically and culturally significant. Brazilian exports reached over a hundred countries and the programs have often proved great international successes. This is particularly the case with historical telenovelas such as A Escrava Isaura (Isaura the Slave), about the abolition of slavery in Brazil, a hit in countries as diverse as Poland, China, Cuba and most of Latin America.


The recent fifth phase of Brazilian television is marked by the appearance of some new video distribution systems. The first new technology to diffuse widely in Brazil was the home videocassette recorder (VCR), which largely gave the middle and upper classes greater access to imported feature films. The new technology with most effect on Brazilian electronic media, however, is the satellite distribution of television to small repeaters throughout the country. In the 1980s, thousands of small towns in rural Brazil purchased satellite dishes and low power repeaters to bring in Brazilian television networks, effectively extending television to 99% of the population. Recent studies show that over 90% of the population probably has television sets. New video technologies entered the Brazilian television market in the 1990s, offering focused or segmented programming through additional advertising supported UHF (ultra high frequency) channels or pay-TV systems such as subscription television (STV), cable TV systems, multichannel multipoint distribution systems (MMDS) and direct satellite broadcasting (DBS).

In this most recent period three main approaches have so far been used to support programming and distribution: Advertising supported UHF, exemplified by the Brazilian adaptation of MTV, which features about 10-20% Brazilian music; over-the-air pay-TV systems, which usually rely on imported channels like CNN, ESPN and HBO; and DBS (Direct Broadcast Satellite) systems, which require subscription. So far only MTV has gained even a small share of the audience. Studies to date indicate that most satellite dishes and many cable connections are being used to secure better reception of Brazilian channels.

Even though the new technologies seem to threaten to bring in a new wave of largely U.S. programming, then, the audience studies so far do not indicate a strong audience response to them, except perhaps among a globalized elite and upper middle class. The dominant characteristic of Brazilian television still seems to be that of a strong national system with a distinct set of genres very popular with its own audience and in export.

-Joseph Straubhaar


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