Long known for showcasing stunning beaches, charismatic characters and realistic depictions of the lives and aspirations of the middle class, Brazilian soap operas have helped shape women’s views on divorce and childbearing in critical ways, two recent studies by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) show.
Both studies analyze the role of television and soap operas in influencing dramatic changes in both fertility and divorce rates in Brazil in the past three decades. Fertility rates in the country dropped more than 60 percent since the 1970s and divorce jumped more than five-fold since the 1980s. During the same period ownership of television sets jumped more than ten-fold, reaching more than 80 percent of households.
The findings from the two studies– “Soap Operas and Fertility,: Evidence from Brazil” and “Television and Divorce: Evidence from Brazilian Novelas” -– could have important implications for governments in development nations. Authorities in these countries often struggle to educate the population on key public health and social issues because of high illiteracy rates and limited newspaper circulation and Internet access.
“Television plays a crucial role in circulating ideas, particularly in developing nations with a strong oral tradition such as Brazil,” said IDB economist Alberto Chong, one of the authors of the studies. “The papers suggest that certain television programs can be a tool to convey very important social messages to help fight the spread of the AIDS epidemic and promote the protection of rights for minorities, for example.”
Both studies focus on the expansion of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest media group and the world’s fourth biggest commercial network. Globo has an extensive coverage of Brazil: its broadcasts were expanded to 98 percent of the country’s municipalities in the 1990s, reaching 17.9 million households, from virtually zero in the mid-1960s.
The rapid expansion of Globo during those years and the dramatic change in some Brazilian social indicators offer a fertile ground for research, The papers perform a series of econometric tests with robust statistical results. They use extensive demographic data and detailed information about the expansion of television signal coverage and soap opera content in Brazil in the past three decades.
Impact of Television
The studies show that television played an important role in influencing women’s perceptions about marriage and family from 1970 to 1991, in addition to other well-studied factors such as risings education levels, access to contraception and certain government policies.
The first paper found that fertility rates, or the number of live births per woman of reproductive age, were significantly lower in areas of Brazil covered by the signal of Globo television than in areas that did not receive the signal.
The impact on behavior has been the strongest among women in poor households and on women in the middle or late child bearing years, suggesting that television influenced their decision to stop having babies rather than when they should start having children.
In general, the probability of a woman giving birth in areas covered by the Globo signal decreased by 0.6 percentage point more than in areas without coverage. The magnitude of the effect is comparable to that associated with an increase of 2 years in women’s education. There was no impact in fertility rates the year before the Globo signal became available.
“Constant exposure to the smaller, less burdened families depicted on television may have created a preference for fewer children,” said Chong,.
Chong’s research on fertility and television also revealed a related impact on divorce rates. Although the supporting data were not as extensive, Chong found that the share of women that are separated or divorced is also higher in areas that receive the Globo signal, particularly in small communities where a high proportion of the population has access to Globo’s broadcast. Such areas had an increment of 0.1 to 0.2 percentage point in the share of women aged 15 to 49 years old that are divorced or separated. The increase is small but statistically significant, Chong said.
The impact is comparable to an increase of 6 months of a woman’s education, a very significant effect when taking into account that average schooling for woman in the period was 3.2 years.
Soap Opera Influence
Sixty to eighty million Brazilians regularly watch evening soap operas, or novelas in Portuguese. Globo has dominated in Brazil the production of novelas., which usually portray a very specific model of family: small , attractive, white, healthy, urban, middle and upper middle class and consumerist.
The setting is usually the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Generally, happier families in the soap opera are small and rich while unhappy families are poorer and contain more children.
The studies analyzed the content of 115 novelas broadcast by Globo between 1965 and 1999 in the two times slots with the highest audience: 7 pm and 8 pm. Sixty-two percent of the main female characters had no children and 21 percent had only one child. Twenty-six percent of the leading female characters were unfaithful to their partners.
Story lines in soap operas often include criticism of traditional values. For example, the network’s 1988 hit “Vale Tudo,” featured a leading character that would steal, lie and cheat to achieve her ultimate goal of getting rich at any cost. Globo has also portrayed modern lifestyles and female emancipation in novelas such as “Dancing Days,” broadcast in 1978, in which the leading female character was a convicted felon fighting to rebuild her reputation and the love of her teenage daughter.
Decreases in fertility rates were stronger in years immediately following the broadcast of novelas that included depictions of upward social mobility, and for women whose age was closer to the leading female character in the soap opera.
Soap operas also influenced the choosing of names for children. The likelihood that the 20 most popular names in a certain area include one or more names of characters of a novela aired in that year was 33 percent if the region received the Globo signal. In regions without access to Globo, the likelihood was only 8.5 percent.
"There is also suggestive evidence that soap opera content has also influenced divorce rates," according to Chong. "When the leading female character of a soap opera was divorced or not married, the rate of divorce increased by 0.1 percentage point on average."
Globo versus SBT
The expansion of Sistema Brasileiro de Televisão (SBT), Brazil’s second largest television station, didn’t affect fertility rates in the country during the same period.
The studies attribute this result to differences in content. Globo soap operas are written by Brazilian authors and produced in Brazil, while SBT novelas are mostly imported from Mexico, or use “imported” plots.
"The programs have to be perceived as realistic portraits of the Brazilian society in order to affect behavior," said Chong. "The public can easily relate with the situations depicted in the Globo novelas."
Globo soap operas also have much higher production values than those produced in Mexico or in other Latin American countries. Globo spends an average of around $125,000 per soap opera episode, or about 15 times more than any network in Latin America.
In addition, Globo’s soaps are shot in easily recognizable locations and depict a typical middle class setup that most viewers identify regardless of their socio-economic status.
Eliana Ferrara, an economist with Bocconi University, co-authored the paper on Divorce with Chong. IDB economist Suzanne Duryea co-authored the study on fertility with Chong and Ferrara.