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VIRTUAL SYMPOSIUM : Broadcasting in Latin America

From a discussion conducted online, Feb. 16, 2000, on the state of broadcasting in Latin America.

Joseph Straubhaar: One of our questions for discussion today is, has the import of international programming into Latin America affected what's being produced locally? How? Conversely, has local production affected the import of international programming into Latin America?

Mary Beadle: I think there is a lot of influence on locally programming. I am most familiar with Argentina and I was specifically told by Carlos Ulanovsky, a well-known journalist, that all successful formulas have been adapted from the US This includes talk shows, Jerry Springer style and late night shows with "top five" lists.

Mauro Porto: As far as Brazil is concerned, a clear tendency on TV has been the nationalization of programming. The main question than becomes: will new technologies, like cable and satellite TV, change this? Research conducted with pay TV subscribers in Brazil shows that they prefer programs produced locally, mainly by the main TV network (Globo).

J. Straubhaar: I agree with Mauro that broadcast TV in Brazil has been very nationalized, starting with prime time and moving into afternoons and mornings, driving the US into late night. Like Argentina, Brazil seems to have adapted a lot of US genres or formulas, such as soap operas, game shows, variety shows, music videos and reality programs. However, a lot of those genres have other roots, too, like the melodrama stretches back to French serial novels as well as US radio soap. Plus a lot of traditional Brazilian elements are blended or hybridized in, such as rural carnivals and circuses feeding into variety shows. And to meet the interests of the Brazilian audience, the networks have extensively adopted things like soap opera, so that telenovelas are essentially a new genre now, with different time slots, lengths, themes, types of writers, ways of telling stories, political and topical elements, etc. Probably the biggest effect of the US is on the underlying assumptions of the networks: all these genres are commercial formats. Adopting the US commercial network model did rule out a lot of the non-commercial program forms.

M. Beadle: Argentina may be a special case since the US influence has been strong since the 1950s. Also, shows that are not available locally are popular. This includes US shows but also many shows imported from other Latin American countries and Europe. Also, Argentina has the largest cable penetration in South America so much is available to the viewer.

J. Straubhaar: It seems that imported programs hit local production very hard in the 1960s but it bounced back in the 1970s and 1980s in many countries.

M. Porto: Yes, imported programs have declined, but some people argue that with pay TV they will come back. I think this will not happen in Brazil because, among other reasons, cable and satellite TV has very limited penetration and even their subscribers prefer locally produced programs.

J. Straubhaar: I have interviewed cable and satellite executives in Brazil. They know that if their systems rely heavily on imported channels, then the audience will be limited to the upper middle class and elite. If they really want to reach into the middle class and working class, they will have to produce or acquire more national programs. Also since, TV Globo is a very major player in both cable and satellite TV, they are hesitant to develop those technologies into a mass medium. That would probably cannibalize some of the large audience (around a 50% audience share, with up to 60-70% of the advertising investment) that they have for their broadcast channel.

M. Beadle: Local productions of early morning news/talk are popular, also women's talk shows. The overall style is similar to the US, but of course the issues that are discussed are unique to the regions. Maybe the format is obviously less important than the content. Local programs are important to all regions, I think. I have been very interested in radio and although the information is limited about most South American countries it seems to me that radio has retained a lot of local character and production. Why people choose to watch local or imported programs is another question.

Gatan Tremblay: What exactly is meant by international programming American? Don't you think that what is happening with TV happened before with other media, like books for example? Novels, essays, poems exist everywhere. But styles are different.

M. Porto: If you consider prime-time programming in Brazil, it is dominated by traditional "national" genres (telenovelas and news). More recently, the main change has been "Ratinho," a popular variety-talk show broadcast by SBT, the second biggest television network. His program is not a copy of any foreign genre, but a very peculiar form, based largely on more "popular" tastes.

M. Beadle: What is the peculiar form?

M. Porto: "Ratinho" launched a new program with a live audience and he acts mostly as a clown-host to different parts of his program, which includes talk-show, music, serious news-reports, and "sensationalist" pieces showing deformed people or segments with explicit sexual content. Several politicians, journalists and intellectuals have demanded the end of this program.

J. Straubhaar: It is hard to be completely original. That program has very similar counterparts elsewhere in Latin America, like "El Compadre" in Bolivia, who mixes that kind of sensationalism with a sort of populist civic appeal participate in his show and he will help complain to the mayor about how your street needs sewer repair.

M. Porto: Local and "popular" programs like "Ratinho" have been a great success among "popular" audiences (with low income, education, etc.). These populations do not have access to imported programs, which are usually shown on pay TV. So I think these new local programs have not affected international programs which target other audiences.

J. Straubhaar: Esther Hamburger of the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo actually did a column once on how "Ratinho" beat out reruns of "ER," even though that was actually on TV Globo, which thought it might be a cheap and effective way to compete with him. But "ER" only appeals to a more upscale audience that is interested in American-style TV drama. There is a kind of segmentation by social class at work. TV Globo aims at everybody. Channels like Record and SBT aim at the lower middle class, working class and poor, with more sensational, topical and local material. Imported and adapted channels like MTV only target the richest 30% of Brazilian youth, in part because that is who their advertisers want but also because that same richest 30% are also the ones most interested in American and European music, according to research that MTV has done. If they want a bigger audience, they will have to add more Brazilian videos.

M. Beadle: I think maybe the importation of a specific program may not be affected, but the need to have sensational programs seems to be a disturbing trend.

TBS: Mary, do you think you could give us a little more detail on your previous statement concerning the continued popularity of local radio programming?

M. Beadle: Local radio programs often feature local music like samba or tango and relate more directly to local cultures of all incomes. Also, there are programs in some native languages and educational programs for people in more rural areas. Radio has adopted to many local needs that TV hasn't or can't afford to. In Bolivia the miners union ran a network of stations that met the needs of local communities by playing folk music or live broadcasts of festivals but also served as a powerful political force. In Colombia, Radio Sutatenza was a pioneer in educational uses of radio and their goal was to eliminate illiteracy among the adult rural population. Special folk music is important, like Paraguayan harp music and the folk music of Peru, huayno. Another consideration is terrain and infrastructure. Mountains or distances make local radio imperative. Often communities lack a phone system and the radio is used to send personal messages to people in other villages.

J. Straubhaar: In fact, that can mean really local, not national. In Brazil, there are several regional/subnational music markets that cater to local tastes, like boi bumb music in Amazonas or ax music in Bahia. People there also listen to national music but the local music is prominent on radio and sells well on cassettes and CDs.

TBS: So with regard to radio, local programming is more popular with Latin American audiences?

M. Beadle: Yes. Of course there are stations that feature Western popular music that are popular, but overall, those stations that meet unique cultural aspects of a region remain popular with a wide cross section of the audience.

M. Porto: A summary of my position about some of the questions we have been discussing: I don't know much about the situation of radio industries, but in Brazil, the TV networks, particularly Globo, will continue to be for some time the dominant cultural forum. New technologies (cable and satellite TV, the Internet, etc.) will not have a significant impact on general cultural trends. Imported programming will be consumed by elites and even they seem to prefer local.

J. Straubhaar: The Internet actually provides an example in Brazil now, even though it seems very globalized at first thought. AOL is trying to enter the Brazilian market, but UOL, a company run by the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, has somewhat preempted them so far. UOL offers access at competitive prices, has good quality access, and offers unique access to its subscribers to a lot of local and national content generated by the newspaper.

M. Beadle: In Argentina, I believe that TV has a tremendous impact on culture. Since one third of the country lives in Buenos Aires and there is close to 70% cable penetration, this is significant. Since people are connected, the Internet will be important. I was surprised recently to discover many Web radio stations from Argentina and other South American countries. I think this will continue.

TBS: With regard to the Internet, how do you feel broadcasters both from within the region and international companies doing business in the region adapt their services in Latin America with Internet usage in mind?

M. Porto: In the Brazilian case, there are several factors that will limit more significant changes: 1. because of the high levels of social inequality in the country, these technologies will remain inaccessible to most people. Only 7% of households have pay TV and the number is declining; 2. even these technologies are dominated by the same group that already controls broadcasting: Globo Organizations. Microsoft has just made a deal with Globo to offer Internet access through their cable company. Thus, Globo already has the control of open and pay TV markets and it is now establishing new global alliances to maintain its influence in the new sectors like the Internet.

TBS: Do you think Internet-driven broadcasting will become a force in the region?

J. Straubhaar: Like Mauro said, in Brazil, while Internet is growing very rapidly right now, there are some natural demographic limits. Only 9 people in 100 have phone lines, in part due to availability of lines, in part to family economics. Many of those, probably most, don't have computers or modems. Access is going to be very limited for a long time. In fact, I fear that Internet will stratify access to information in Brazil very badly, contributing to a potentially serious information gap.

M. Beadle: The Internet is having an impact on those that are already connected. In Chile, there was a problem setting up the connections due to disagreements with the universities and who would "control" access. There were also geographic problems. So for many in Latin America, this new technology will be unavailable for a long time. But for those few countries that are economically ready I am thinking mostly of Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the Internet does have an impact. One interesting thing is many sites are in more than one language, usually Spanish and English, but also Portuguese, French, German.

TBS: How much government control is there over the Internet, and what impact if any will this have on Internet-driven broadcasting in the future?

M. Beadle: It depends on the country. Argentina has very little control; I think the smaller poorer countries control through economic means. From what I have found on the Internet with Web radio, there seems to be a wide-open attempt right now to get on and start "broadcasting" The control will come in maybe over the issue of copyright and music, in which international agreements here have not always worked.

Let me say too that the term "Latin America" can be confusing. I have mostly been looking at South America. However, a lot of the sites and work includes Central America, the Caribbean, and the Hispanic community in the US as part of Latin America. These are very diverse groups. The economic situation in Central America and the Caribbean may even be more of a hindrance than in South America. We also need to keep in mind the effects of transnational corporations.

J. Straubhaar: Countries can limit access by phone line, computer price and other controls. The Internet in Brazil only took off after the state long distance company (now being privatized) allowed local ISPs to compete, which lowered the costs.

TBS: Final question: Do you think the satellite/TV market in this region is moving towards a pan-American market, or do national services still play a more dominant role in broadcasting?

M. Beadle: I think there already is a pan-American market. This is especially evident in cable television in Argentina. On the cable system there are many channels from Latin America, the last time I counted there were more channels form Latin America and Europe than from the US. National services will continue to play a role, but with the increase pressure of TNC's how much will remain in control of the local or regional broadcaster is still to be decided. Of course economic conditions play a big part in the development of media, especially internet and political considerations also. There is a trade agreement within South America and this may have positive effects on pan-American television importation.

J. Straubhaar: I think the regional DBS/cable services are popular because they provide a way to get some access to a broader range of material, in a reasonably cost-effective way, for a certain fraction of the populace who are interested in things that are not available nationally. So some few actually watch CNN, while considerably more watch documentaries on Discovery. I think national cable channels will be more popular than US ones if they become economically feasible. There is a certain niche market for European language channels with immigrants, and I think that there may be a truly pan-American market for genre channels in things like music, where MTV Latino, is already doing well (and in fact getting competition from a number of new regional and national music channels). 

Participants Bios

Mary E. Beadle is an associate professor of communications at John Carroll University located near Cleveland, Ohio. She teaches in the undergraduate communications program and in the graduate program in communications management. Her research interests include international media and media history. She has completed several research projects in South America and has conducted communication seminars in Russia, Paraguay and Argentina. She currently serves as vice-chair of the International Division of the Broadcast Education Association.

Mauro Porto is assistant professor of the Department of International Relations of the University of Brasilia, Brazil. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. His main field of research is political communication, particularly the role of television in Brazilian politics, and he has written several articles about the relationship between mass media, politics and democracy. His Ph.D. dissertation will discuss the links between television and its audiences' interpretation of the political process in Brazil.

Joseph Straubhaar is Amon G. Carter Centennial Professor of Communication, Department of Radio-TV-Film at The University of Texas at Austin. He has published a book on international communications, "Videocassette Recorders in the Third World"; edited a book on international telecommunications, "Telecommunications Politics: Ownership and Control of the Information Superhighway in Developing Countries"; and written a textbook, "Media Now: Communications Media in the Information Society"; along with numerous articles and essays on Brazilian television, Latin American media, comparative analyses of new television technologies, media flow and culture, and other topics appearing in a number of journals, edited books, and elsewhere. He does research in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and has taken student groups to Latin America and Asia. He has done seminars abroad on media research, television programming strategies, and telecommunications privatization.

Gaetan Tremblay is a professor of communications at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Concentrating on audio-visual industries and communication networks, Professor Tremblay employs a comparative analytical approach to assess the impact of new technologies on the cultural policies of various communities, including Quebec, Belgium, Spain, France, Brazil and Mexico. He is interested in the question of making cultural policies effective in a rapidly changing technological world. His current research focuses on the complex inter-relationship between technological change, the effects of international trade agreements such as NAFTA, Mercosur, and the European Union, and national policies designed to protect and foster unique cultural attributes. He has been invited as a guest lecturer in more than twenty universities in different countries. He also has published several books and many papers in various academic journals.

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