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Brazil shows its face on TV

Surveys show that soap operas help us understand the country

In January 1995, a group of researchers at the School of Communication and Arts at USP began a research project. The comprehensive study, known as Fiction and Reality: Soap Operas in Brazil; Brazil in Soap Operas, began divided into nine separate surveys. The purpose was to study Brazilian soaps, a genre neglected by so many researchers – and even by substantial proportion of the population – to identify its nuances, its prevailing features, and, in particular, how viewers perceive them. It was a pioneering initiative to map a expression form that, in spite of being extremely popular, had been little examined until then.

The work was undertaken by a research center at the ECA called the Soap Opera Research Nucleus (NPTN in the Portuguese). The work ended up achieving more far-reaching objectives than those it started with. Besides identifying a series of interesting, curious and relevant issues about soap operas and Brazilian television viewers, Fiction and Reality ended debunking various myths surrounding the genre. Based on this research group’s work it became possible to state, with no doubt, that that soap operas made in Brazil are a quality cultural product that is extremely interesting as material for understanding the country. The soaps have defects and faults, of course, but they certainly cannot be disregarded.

The surveys were concluded at the end of 1999, under the coordination of professor Ana Maria Fadul. The range of subjects covered by the nine surveys making up the project was varied. Everything from the participation of black characters in the soaps to the influence of children’s narrative forms such as fairy tales, in the construction of a TV drama, was discussed. Some surveys received grants from FAPESP, among which were The Communication Field: the Values of Soap Opera Viewers, by professor Doctor Maria Aparecida Baccega; Reception of Brazilian Soap Operas: An Exploration of Methodology, by professor Doctor Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes; and the Hook of Brazilian Soap Operas: An Aesthetic and Sociological Analysis, by professor Maria Cristina Castilho da Costa. Each reached different conclusions, all worthy of attention. Together, the works help to make up a profile of this typically Brazilian narrative form – which has a Brazilian face precisely because it reflect the country so well.

Taboo subjects
One of the surveys that caused considerable controversy – in part because of its results, in part because of the perseverance with which the author defends soap operas – was that undertaken by the linguist Maria Aparecida Baccega, aged 57. From 1995 to 1998, she received a total of R$ 23,100 from FAPESP to compare society’s views on family issues  with the approach taken by soaps to the same subjects. Thus, while hundreds of respondents replied to questions about marriage and separation, or about the participation of women in the jobs market, the way Globo TV’s prime time soap operas portrayed these questions was observed. The quantitative field research was split into two stages and covered 622 interviewees. The soaps studied in the first stage (1986 to 1990) were Roque Santeiro (1985/ 1986), Selva de Pedra (Concrete Jungle) (1986), Roda de Fogo (Wheel of Fire) (1986/1987), O Outro (The Other) (1987), Mandala (1987/1988), Vale Tudo (Anything Goes) (1988/1989), Tieta (1989/ 1990), and Meu Bem, Meu Mal ( My Good thing, Bad thing)  (1990/ 1991). In the second part of the survey were O Salvador da Pátria (Savior of the Country) (1988/ 1989), Rainha da Sucata (Scrap Queen) (1990), A Próxima Vítima (The Next Victim) (1995), and O Rei do Gado (Cattle King) (1996/1997).

The conclusions were surprising. “We discovered that soaps often deal with subjects that society considers taboo and, even so, they make no impression in terms of changing people’s behavior. The notion that soaps excessively influence viewers’ thinking is nonsense”, explains Maria Aparecida. In her opinion, most of the plots bring up controversial topics that are latent in society, awaiting the right moment to be discussed. The opportunity often seems to be in the form of television characters and fictional stories. Take the case of A Próxima Vítima: in Sílvio de Abreu’s plot, there are a middle class black family, a young homosexual couple, and drug-addicted boy. “When we interviewed families, none of these subjects was viewed with the same dispassionateness with which they were portrayed on television”, points out the researcher. But she emphasizes that, regardless of the fictional plot, no father has yet begun accepting a gay son just because that is the way it happened in the soap. “The plot merely brings subjects into debate in society, but it does not influence anyone’s behavior”.

Fiction and Reality
Maria Aparecida vehemently rejects the old notion that soap operas are an inferior and alienating art form. “Viewers are not foolish. They know that a black middle class family is still a rarity in Brazilian society, they are aware that this can happen in fiction but it is far from being common in real life. It so happens that this type of subject matter displayed at prime time by actors that people know, and admire, can help to break down prejudice. This is not utopia”. This connection between fiction and fact is a two-way street. In the same way that soap operas discuss subjects that are under the surface in society, the genre also reflects the changes and progress taking place in reality.

The proof lies in the figures gathered by the researcher. In the first stage of the work, for example, 33% of the female characters in the soaps were homemakers. In the second stage, the authors took women out of the house (only 17% did household chores ) and put them firmly in the jobs market, giving the most varied of occupations: these ranged from senior executives to mobsters, and included university professors, and farm owners. “There are two routes. Dramatists need to reflect topics that society still hides away, but they also need to pay attention to the changes taking place in reality and include them in their plots”, she explains.

A question of class
With her work based on a different concept – that of the study of mediation, by the Spanish researcher Martin-Barbero –, the sociologist Maria Immacolata de Lopes, 54 years of age, made her valuable contribution to the Fiction and Reality project. For two years of work, she was awarded R$ 20,100 by FAPESP. During the period the soap A Indomada (The Untamed One) was shown on television, from February to October 1997, she undertook a survey with four families: one from the lower class, living in a shantytown, another from the lower middle class, living in the outskirts of São Paulo, a third from the upper middle class and, finally, an upper class family in the São Paulo state capital. “The idea was to see how these families, with their different structures, education, cultural habits, and lifestyles, perceived what was portrayed in the soap opera”, says Immacolata. As well as conducting interviews with all family members, the researchers assigned to the task (graduate students at different schools at USP) asked the participants to choose certain scenes they regarded as important in each daily episode. “It was a very curious experience. Each family a attached value to different scenes. In a way, it was as if each group was watching a completely different program from the others”.

Some scenes, however, were picked by all four families. One of them, recalls the professor, was the part where the Scarlet character (Luiza Thomé) was talking to her daughter about the importance of making her first sexual experience something special. “This was one of the topics that all the respondents considered important and said the authors (Aguinaldo Silva and Ricardo Linhares) had handled it tastefully”. Curiously, in some respects the upper class family proved to be infinitely more conservative than the poor family. The procuress Zenilda, the Renata Sorrah character, was the owner of a brothel candidly known as The Country House, where girls known as “Camellias” worked. The respondents living in the shantytown saw Zenilda as a strong and combative woman, in spite of having an ill-regarded profession. At the same time, the richest family saw her as a low life person and thought that the topic of prostitution should not be aired like that and said that the soap was advertising the profession”. It was as if the two families were watching different programs.

In addition to observing how different social classes perceive soap operas in different ways, Maria Immacolata concluded that there are other factors influencing viewers’ perceptions of the dramas. “The notion of mediation, raised by Martin-Barbero, establishes various ‘filters’ before the information reaches people”, explains the professor. Hence, everything has an influence on how the story is received. There are questions like the type of relationship inside the family itself, the dynamics of each household and the way people relate to each other in their daily lives. It takes account also of the fact that it is a fictional genre, in which people know that the story is invented (quite different, for example, from putting people in front the TV set to watch the nightly news); it even allows for the steps involved in producing the soap opera, such as the technology used, the actors in the scene, and the very fact that it is on Globo TV – all this predetermines part of the perception that people have of the product. “All this builds the feeling of the soap opera. On it own, the product leaving the editing rooms at the broadcaster, is just a part of the process. What reaches people sitting on their sofas in their living rooms is very different “, points out Immacolata.

Patches of the drama
Of the three professors, Maria Cristina Castilho Costa, 50, was the last to join the Soap Opera Research Nucleus. A graduate in Social Sciences, she received R$ 5,000 from FAPESP for a year and a half’s work. Her survey was called the Hook of Brazilian Soap Operas: An Aesthetic and Sociological Analysis. The hook, the study target, is the name given to the trick of interrupting the narrative at a climactic moment. In the final analysis, Maria Cristina worked with the element that holds viewers in their seats between one section and the next and makes them return the following day to see what happens in the next episode. “The hook sews all the patches of the plot together. It is essential in soap operas, which, like any other television product, uses extremely fragmented language and for this reason it needs some kind of device to keep the audience’s attention”.

In this study, which dissects and exemplifies the use of the hook in soap operas, Maria Cristina worked with O Rei do Gado (Cattle King), written by Benedito Ruy Barbosa, and aired between June 1996 and February 1997. Barbosa, considered one of the masters of the genre in Brazil, managed with this plot to bring back the shine to a narrative form that was going through a period of decline and seemed to have run its course. Even worse, it had chronically low audience ratings, never before seen on Globo TV. As an author employing the masterful use of the most traditional structure of soaps, allied to historical facts and important issues to contemporary society, in O Rei do Gado, he mixed a Romeo and Juliet style love story (involving rival families) in a plot that brought to prime time the debate on the landless movement in Brazil. Fine material for discussing the importance of the hook.

“As a two-stage soap opera, O Rei do Gado was chock full of very interesting examples of the hook”, says the professor. The Geremias Berdinazzi character  (Raul Cortez), for example, began as an enigmatic and mysterious figure. He could turn out to be the villain of the story or be a respectable figure. “That factor on its own was already an element for keeping viewers loyal to the soap. They wanted to know how the person would turn out”, she recalls. There was also the mystery at the beginning surrounding the origins of Luana (Patrícia Pillar), of the intentions of Rafaela (Glória Pires). It is elements like these that build the plot’s profile. And, to a lesser degree, each episode has its hook at the end; a revelation, a surprise, a doubt that comes up that will be cleared up in the next episode. “The hold is like a building block in the story, a summary of what happened in that episode. It is as if the writer had said: ‘today we discover this or that about a certain character’. It is the dramatist’s skill in putting all these blocks together that will determine viewers’ loyalty to the soap”.

The loyalty of Brazilians is not in doubt; it is still strong. People talk about the genre being in decline; they say that it is taking a beating from the Internet and cable TV and they point to the audience ratings that fall every year. Indeed, it will not be easy for Globo – the audience leader and an example of quality when it comes to soap operas – to return to the glory days of Roque Santeiro, when audience measurements reached almost 100%. In recent years, the broadcaster has been criticized for a lack of creativity, for turning to hotter scenes at inappropriate times, and even for repeating formulas to the point of saturation. ‘”That’s what soap operas are all about: repetition”, states Maria Cristina. She recalls that many of the devices used in building the genre have been around for centuries, since the stories of the Thousand and One Nights, and include indigenous legends, the weekly serials published in the popular press at the beginning of the century, and radio soap operas. “That is why it is such a Brazilian form of narrative. It retains the spirit of oral story telling, which holds listeners more by their emotions than by the sophistication of its formal shape”, adds Maria Aparecida. “Soap operas are, undoubtedly, a manifestation of mass culture. But this does not mean that they should be dismissed. Denmark, Germany, France, and the United States are all undertaking specific studies of our soap operas as a topic. Even these countries have discovered the sociological value of the genre. There is no reason to treat them with any less respect here”, says Maria Immacolata. These women’s five years of work for the Soap Opera Research Nucleus will undoubtedly reverse the trend and ensure a happy ending for Brazilian soap operas.

• Maria Aparecida Baccega is a graduate in Arts from USP’s School  of Philosophy, Arts, and Human Sciences, where she took her master’s degree and doctorate, and she is a member of the staff of USP’s School of Communication and Arts  (ECA/USP), where she is a lecturer.
Project: The Communication Field: Values of Soap Opera Viewers
Investment: R$ 23,132
• Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes is a graduate in Social Sciences from USP’s School of Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences; she has a master’s degree and doctorate in Communication Sciences from ECA/USP, where she lectures.
Project: Reception of Brazilian Soap Operas: An Exploration of Methodology.
Investment: R$ 20,128
• Maria Cristina Castilho Costa is a graduate in Social Sciences from São Paulo’s Pontifícia Universidade Católica. She has a master’s degree and doctorate in also in Social Sciences from USP’s Faculty of Philosophy, Arts, and Human Sciences. She is a lecturer at the ECA/USP.
Project: Hook of Brazilian Soap Operas: An Aesthetic and Sociological Analysis
Investment: R$ 5,000