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Maria Immacolata V. de Lopes

Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes: TV soap opera, the Brazilian narrative

Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes: Soap operas are watched and talked about. They are in newspapers, blogs,  sites, and the episodes are published in advance in the Sunday papers

miguel boyayan Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes: Soap operas are watched and talked about. They are in newspapers, blogs, sites, and the episodes are published in advance in the Sunday papersmiguel boyayan

It took a long time before TV soap operas were acknowledged as an object of fascinating and legitimate academic research in Brazil. It was not until the 1990’s that the University of São Paulo’s School of Arts and Communication/ECA-USP witnessed the creation of a research group willing to conduct an extensive study on this melodramatic genre, which has become typically Brazilian in many aspects and from many points of view.

This group included Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes, who is currently a head professor at ECA and coordinator of the Post-Graduate Program in Communication Sciences/PPGCOM. Immacolata decided to take the reception issue seriously – a controversial issue that is always discussed in the scope of communication theories. She believed that if she focused on the viewers of soap operas, she could unravel some of the reasons that have transformed Brazilian soap operas into a vivid mass communication phenomenon, and even an export product.

Although the death of the soap opera genre has been heralded several times since the 1980’s, the fact is that this genre is still alive and doing very well in 2009. A Favorita, aired by TV Globo channel, has been emitting clear signs of vitality, achieving 50 points in the IBOPE ratings, after having hit a low of 35 points. The jump in ratings was caused by the fantastic and bold turn-around in the life of the apparent heroine. This achievement cannot be compared to such legendary performances as “Roque Santeiro,” the last installment of which allegedly achieved 100 points, meaning that the entire viewer population was watching TV Globo station to see the end of the brilliant electronic novel written by Dias Gomes. Nobody knows if this actually happened, but the direct comparison does not make very much sense nowadays because television is a much more complex and diversified universe, which includes the powerful audio visual aspect of digital media as exemplified by the Internet. Within this current scenario, a soap opera like A Favorita is indeed a huge success.

While watching television in viewers’ homes in the second half of the 1990’s, Immacolata gained a better understanding of the reason for the genre’s huge success. She described her experience in Vivendo com a telenovela: mediações, recepção, teleficcionalidade, a book she wrote in 2002 (published by Summus Editorial), together with researchers Silvia Helena Simões Borelli and Vera da Rocha Resende, professors at the Catholic University of São Paulo/(PUC-SP and at Paulista State University/ Unesp. When the book was published, Immacolata had just come back from a trip to Italy, where she had gone to study fiction on television, and had become involved in a project of the Observatório Ibero-Americano de Ficção Televisiva television fiction project, the Obitel, that had been created in 2005 with the participation of nine countries. The Obitel project involved academic institutions linked to the research and development departments of such powerful communication media companies as Globo and Mexico’s Televisa. Each country involved in the project has an academic institution responsible for Obitel – in Brazil, this institution is the Center for Research on Soap Operas, coordinated by Immacolata.

This interview mostly focused on Obitel which in addition to developing a quantitative data base on television fiction in all the countries participating in this project, also conducts and publishes a report which analyzes the audience ratings, production and social-cultural repercussions of all the television fiction produced in Latin America and in the Iberian Peninsula. However, due to Immacolata’s passion for soap operas, a topic that greatly attracts any Brazilian interested in mass communication, Obitel remained in the background while contemporary Brazilian fictional narratives were in the spotlight in this conversation, the main parts of which are transcribed below:

Maria Immacolata Vassalo de Lopes: At Obitel, the basic action was to create a soap opera monitoring system so that we could go beyond case studies

miguel boyayan Maria Immacolata Vassalo de Lopes: At Obitel, the basic action was to create a soap opera monitoring system so that we could go beyond case studiesmiguel boyayan

You are one of academia’s pioneers in the study of soap operas in Brazil. My first question is: how did the soap opera become the main topic of your research study?
In the early 1990’s, José Marques de Melo, the then director of ECA, organized a novel study group, the objective of which was to conduct research studies on unusual topics. One of these topics was the soap opera, the other one was comic strips, etc. The group was initially led by Ana Maria Fadul. The next issue was how to organize this research team, because we would be focusing on a very important topic for the country in cultural and communication terms, yet the legitimizing and acknowledgement of a new research study object in the academic world is usually very difficult. Little by little, the research projects of the professors and the students , who were working on their master’s and doctorate degrees, began to take shape. Today, we have a fantastic number of dissertations on fiction on television, which include soap operas, short features, serials, etc.

At which ECA department did everything begin?
At the Arts and Communications Department/CCA, which is linked to the field of the theory of communication. The approach to soap operas had an interdisciplinary intention. The issue to be focused on was the soap opera in Brazil, that is, a product that comes from television, and the meaning of television in Brazilian society. When the coordination of this center was in the hands of Maria Aparecida Baccega, in 1995, we submitted a project proposal to FAPESP, which resulted in nine sub projects. In view of this result, I was asked to conduct a study on how soap operas are accepted. [“Recepção da telenovela brasileira: uma exploração metodológica“]. A colleague was doing research on racial issues in soap operas, another colleague focused on consumer issues; Renata Pallottini, another colleague, was focused on soap opera language issues, and Lurdinha, Maria de Lourdes Motter – who has unfortunately passed away since then – focused on the relationship between reality and fiction, etc. All of this work generated books and a very interesting process for the vitality of this center. Another aspect of our work involved the interface with producers and the market, and most of the papers and dissertations, in this case, focused on the products of the Globo television network. This was something natural, because Globo has turned soap operas into a profitable product, providing it with aesthetic and technical quality. But the fact is that the group had to focus on the management of market relations, because the soap opera issue was mistrusted by the academic community and our studies raised the mistrust of soap opera producers, who thought we would start talking about alienation and accuse them of “what you do is manipulation,” that kind of stuff. But things started moving forward, thanks to the seminars to which we invited producers and, mainly, the authors of the soap operas, among whom were Lauro César Muniz, Silvio de Abreu, Maria Adelaide Amaral and Glória Perez. They mingled with the academics and this resulted in very interesting work.

Specifically in your study on the reception of soap operas, what were your main findings?
Well, we did have a theoretical/methodological challenge, basically methodology in the study, linked to the issue of the theory of mediations. This is a greatly influential topic in the field of communication, because of Jesus Martín-Barbero. So we had to conduct the research by resorting to the mediations issue as the basis and define how to elaborate on this theory in methodological terms. This was not simple and this is why I insisted so strongly with FAPESP, that the project was really a methodological experience in an empirical research study.

In practical terms, who did you interview? How did you define your sample?
Case studies are frequently focused on in Humanities, and this was the idea – to do research on the reception of soap operas within the scope of a case study. So we focused on a smaller world – actually, not that small; it was comprised of four families from different income levels, ranging from a family living in a slum to a high-income family living in a gated community in the upscale Morumbi neighborhood. The other two families comprised one from the suburbs of São Paulo and one was a middle-class family. We observed them watching the same soap opera…

Scene from A indomada: scientific follow-up for eight months

reproductions from the book Vivendo com a telenovela Scene from A indomada: scientific follow-up for eight monthsreproductions from the book Vivendo com a telenovela

Which soap opera was it?
A Indomada, which was being aired at that time. The strategy included staying in the families’ homes for a period of eight months, conducting an ethnographic analysis and, at the same time, studying how the families watched the soap opera, that is, how they accepted the product. And this involved an ambitious methodological protocol, because the work had to be done by a multidisciplinary team, which included senior professionals from the fields of psychology, anthropology, communications, sociology, plus a group of post-graduate students and students beginning their scientific studies – 14 people were involved at the busiest time of the project. The research project took three years – one year to refine the team, which was very important, because we would visit the homes of these people twice a week, on average. We spent eight months with these families, from the beginning to the end of the soap opera. Our commitment was to leave at any moment, if we were hampering the family’s life. None of the four families proposed that we do this.

What did you do, in practical terms?
A pair of researchers would come in at the scheduled time. But the research study also included observing what we refer to as the culture of the family – we had to see the family’s routine in the morning, afternoon and evening, how the TV set was turned on, when, how, what they did, in short, the scenario, because the TV set is a family appliance and all of this is part of what we refer to as ethnographic observation. We were interested in those people, in their life stories, how they got interested in watching soap operas, etc. And all this allowed us to see, in practical terms, that the soap opera is truly a popular narrative, with the signs of acknowledgement, more apparent than identification, as stated by Jesus Martín-Barbero and others. In other words, people recognize themselves in that popular narrative. The soap opera has to be a melodrama to be well accepted, but the fact is that it also began to talk about the Brazilian reality.

Is this acknowledgement something visible or measurable?
It can be observed and, as the soap opera is a narrative for the family, and not for individuals, it is more consequential to focus the investigation on the family as a unit. The soap opera always focuses on private topics, passions, hate, and people’s backgrounds, always within a family environment. This is the scenario, the paradigm. The viewers are real families who partially recognize themselves in the fictional families.

The family as the environment is the very traditional format of story-telling. Why is this centuries-old format maintained in television fiction?
Because the matrix of the melodrama is the same. What is this matrix? It means the centrality of the character in the family, this private space where the most incredible, unimaginable things have a chance of happening. The soap opera focuses on politics, on other instances of reality, but it is the behavior, it is the moral issues that attract the most attention, and all of this is part of that matrix. The recognition happens because everyone sees themselves in a family. The structuralists showed this very clearly, that is, how these families are going to enter into a conflict or into an association and into all the resulting plots, with a lot of interaction.

There are more competent and less competent authors of these plots. In your opinion, who is the master of them all?
I think Manoel Carlos is fabulous in this respect, Do you know why? Because of the quantity of the plots he is able to deal with simultaneously; many subplots take on enormous importance, as in the case of Mulheres apaixonadas [ Globo network, 02/17 to 10/10/2003], which makes it difficult to define who the protagonist is. Sometimes, a plot initially intended to be a secondary plot becomes the main plot and vice versa.

But this results from the interaction with the viewers, doesn’t it? Because it is the kind of narrative that we recognize ourselves in, the viewers reveal themselves, as attested to by the reception, the viewers identify with the characters, which characters they have more empathy with, etc.
Yes, the producers have many ways of measuring, of capturing this, ranging from their sensitivity to audience ratings. The interesting fact is that the viewers become literate in what we refer to as the grammar of this narrative. No only can we see the making-of of Hollywood films, but we can also see the making-of of Brazilian TV productions. The backstage is viewed by the media, and the writers themselves reveal how they work. So Manoel Carlos says: “I go to the newspaper stand, I go to the pizza joint, I go to my local bar and I start to listen etc…”. And this is how people know: “Here he is, it’s Manoel Carlos, listen, Mr. Manoel, that scene last night was fantastic, etc”. This interaction has already established itself. The last author to innovate in this respect was Aguinaldo Silva, who started a blog while he was writing Duas caras [Globo network, 10/01/2007 to 05/31/2008]. Tiago Santiago also decided to do the same when he was writing the soap opera Os mutantes: caminhos do coração, aired by Record TV network.

Let’s talk about the soap operas currently on air – how do you evaluate the amazing turn-around that transformed the character played by Patricia Pilar into a monstrous villain in the soap opera A Favorita?
In my opinion, A Favorita combined the characteristics of classic drama – revenge, jealousy, secrets – with innovations, for example, when during the second or third month viewers found out who the good and the bad guys were, which totally inverted what the viewers had been led to believe until then. This was a very bold move in terms of the plot, written by João Emanuel Carneiro. And it worked beautifully, by turning Patrícia Pilar’s sweet, trustworthy character into a traditional villain, a true serial killer, who hates her own daughter, etc. Indeed, if you watch carefully, you will be able to see that this soap opera is all about “appearances are misleading”: none of the characters, or, the majority of the characters are not really what they seem to be. The viewers responded very well and the soap opera is going up in the ratings, achieving almost 50 points.

During the research, it became more perceptible that the feeling of recognition, by the soap opera viewers, has the power of influencing the unfolding of the story in some way.
That was not the most important point to be observed. Of course viewers have an influence, and this is seen at many levels, ranging from the media talking about the soap opera, something that producers pay very close attention to, to the qualitative focus groups that the TV station itself organizes; in short, this involves a system, a methodology used to gauge the mood of the viewers in relation to the soap opera. But the most important thing for our research study is the spontaneity that we observe; for example, if a politician in Congress, when making a speech to his peers on some significant issue, suddenly refers to a soap opera, this attests to the soap opera’s cultural dimension, to the space it occupies. And now, we have the Internet, the blogs, groups that want to kill a character and groups that praise another character, “I hate author so-and-so” or “I love author so-and-so”; this reminds me of those old fan clubs. And this allows us to say that, in social terms, we have an extremely vital relationship with the soap opera. I would like to make a few comments on how today we are focusing on the viewer, the viewer’s reception in studies on communication.

How so?
We no longer see this as the conclusion of a communication process that begins with the broadcasting. This has changed to such an extent that some people say that the process begins with the reception because it is at this point that new awareness is created. Or, as we say it, meanings are re-created. Not everybody watches TV in the same way – contents are cut out. A family living in a slum watches the same product that is being viewed by the upper middle class family, but the first thing to remember is that the acceptance is not the same. The beauty of this whole issue is that we can say: “The ratings a re high, for many different reasons.” And most of the reasons are implied in people’s experiences, in lives, in daily lives, in people’s culture, all of which are different because Brazilian society has great inequalities.

So far from being simple, this product is subject to many interpretations and re-creations of meaning.
That’s right. Many interpretations, infinite interpretations. Therefore, when one compares the nature of this product to its signs of recognition – because this is a popular narrative, in the sense that it is not hermetic, it is not a novel – the literary nature of the soap opera becomes clear. In other words, grammar begins to be learned, which includes the criticism that “this scene was badly done,” “the character is speaking in the wrong way,” etc.

A criticism that refers to aesthetics.
Aesthetic, technical criticisms… sometimes astonishing criticisms surface, especially when one goes down the social ladder. An interesting fact is that, of the four families we worked with, the family that came the closest to the concept of an ideal family was not the one from the slum, or the one that we classify as traditional middle class, nor the upper-middle class one, but the family that lives in the suburbs. This family could be classified as a lower-middle class family. This family owned specific home appliances, the children went to school, unlike the children of the slum family, whose teenage children sold goods at traffic lights… The father was a fishmonger, and he sold fish in street markets. The mother did volunteer work at the local church, and that is why she was very critical of the things she saw on the soap opera.

Describe this ideal family.
I’m referring to the ideal as defined by Weber. When one has ideal types, one is no longer in reality. For example, when Weber talks about capitalism, he’s referring mostly to the ideal kind of capitalist rationality. One clearly sees that management, that business is the body of capitalism. In this concept, everything is controlled in terms of means to an end. But in regard to families – the four families we worked with, for which of course we have no statistical meaning – in the four families we clearly saw elements specific to a middle-class way of life. However, in relation to recognizing oneself in a narrative and in terms of re-creating meaning, the categories we worked with in the studies on reception (that nowadays some people refer to as active, doing away with the notion of total passivity when watching television) this way truly embodied itself, it was much more apparent in the second family, the one from the suburbs.

In other words, this family had a more direct, more devoted relationship – in the broad sense of devoted – and more interactive with what was going on on the screen, to the point of “telling” the characters what they should do.
That’s right. We focused on these families without any prior restrictions. We simply wanted them to watch the soap opera and that they would be willing to let us come into their homes. The other requirement was that they did not have small children. We did not have the conditions to include this viewer category – the small kids. Adolescents were accepted, provided that they were aware they could speak up as adolescents or youngsters. This was the only prerequisite in terms of the family structure. If the head of the family was a widow, that was acceptable. We found such a family. The family arrangement of the slum family did not include the husband, who had abandoned the family. The widow had her own soap opera – her life. In this respect, the family from the suburbs was the ideal family – father, mother, and children.

So it had all the elements of the nuclear family.
Yes, everything well arranged. The wife was very interesting to observe while she was watching the soap opera, because the soap opera’s female character was very powerful.

How old were the heads of these families?
Nearly 50. The middle-class family husband and wife were both in their second marriages. There were no children at home, because the husband’s children from his first marriage were living with their mother and the couple did not have children of their own. The upper-middle class wife enjoyed watching soap operas, but her businessman husband would come back home from work, say “good evening” and go off to another room to watch his videos. He never sat down with us. She always watched the soap opera by herself. The son was enrolled in a post-graduate course and the two daughters were enrolled in college preparatory courses. In terms of reception study, it was very encouraging to watch how the soap opera entered that home. The two daughters attended evening classes and therefore only watched the soap opera on Saturdays. Their mother would tell them what had happened in the soap opera during the week. The challenge of establishing ethical limits on how far we could go, to what extent we could meet demands to comment on certain topics, such as for example, the issue of sexuality in the soap opera was very interesting. This led the girls to comment on their own experiences. I mean, if we think about anthropological research, when you study a tribe, you have to act like the natives, you have to gain the natives’ confidence. But we were at that home to talk about the soap opera. In relation to recognition, to the re-creation of meaning and to several interpretations, what attracted my attention was the fact that the soap opera created things in common, beyond all the differences among the viewers, which is what I began to refer to as a shared repertoire.

In other words, one can find some kind of shared repertoire in Brazilian society, from the top to the bottom of the social strata. 
That’s right. For example, how the family deals with the issue of virginity and sexuality of the daughters – this issue was dealt with in a scene of A Indomada as a Romeo-Julie kind of relationship. This particular soap opera, written by Aguinaldo Silva, had everything – from major drama to slapstick comedy. And when I refer to this shared repertoire, I recall a scene in which the character played by actress Luíza Tomé, who was playing the mayor’s wife, and the mayor, played by actor Paulo Betti, talk to their daughter about the first time she will have sexual intercourse – which is about to happen. It was a fantastic scene.

In terms of the reception by these different families, did you detect a favorable view of this form?
Yes, it was favorable. Not only in terms of the form, but also in terms of the idea that a soap opera should address such an issue, because this is something that everybody has to deal with, because this is something that all families have to contend with. The character was also talking about being careful, that sex should go together with love. The character said: “Do you know what you’re doing? Are you ready?” Then she goes on to talk about hormones, in a very contemporary and not old-fashioned way. Another shared repertoire was related to political issues. Again, referring to Martín-Barbero: a common person will never understand what war means – war is a place where your uncle was killed. The city is a place where your cousin achieved success. So, the more complicated mental categories reach people through affectivity. In other words, perception is clearly identified with an emotional feeling. Therefore, emotion and perception. The soap opera engages in this dual movement so that the message reaches out to people: what is private becomes public and what is public becomes private. And this is how things have to be. Let’s consider violence, for example. It has to happen in a family and so, in a soap opera by Manoel Carlos, which provoked a reaction to the violence in Rio de Janeiro, one of the characters – a young girl – is looking at something and is killed by a stray bullet. In the upscale neighborhood of Leblon. She was one of the main characters, and this is how the soap opera author inserted the dramatic stray bullet issue into fiction.

So what is going on in the outside world that did not lead to any kind of reaction suddenly takes on a meaning through perception. I relate to objective violence by means of perception, facilitated by the work of the media.
Exactly. And through the devices of the narrative. And then we move on to television narrative, that has gained Brazilian characteristics, that turned into the soap opera, which, in my opinion, is a typical genre – a genre of Brazilian television. I came to this conclusion through my theoretical, methodological and epistemological involvement, and through reception.

So when did the soap opera become a genuinely Brazilian cultural product?
The landmark for all the researchers who study the history of soap operas is Beto Rockfeller, produced by TV Tupi station, written by Bráulio Pedroso, and aired in 1968. But we have a Brazilian-making process, which includes the naturalization of the actors, the way they act, and the story itself. In other words, the soap opera has become increasingly realistic. Not because the soap opera author forgets that he is writing a soap opera script, and therefore a dramatic genre, but because the audience demands this realism. I’ll give you an example: one of the subplots takes place in the publishing room of a newspaper and the journalists complain by saying “nothing like this ever happens, this is misleading.”

The same happens with doctors, nutritionists and all other professional fields.
The soap opera’s ability to mobilize people and how deeply rooted this is – that’s really amazing. And this is what I mean when I refer to the Brazilian nature of this genre. The issue is whether the genre was appropriate to become Brazilian. Brazilian culture had absorbed the soap opera in comic book format, the radio soap opera, and the way films deal with the country, so the television soap opera did not materialize in an isolated manner, it appropriated what had been happening for decades in culture. When we reflect on this, we necessarily refer to radio as it was used by Getúlio Vargas in the 1940’s and then in the early 1950’s. We study the means of communication in Brazilian society, we ask about the effects, about the importance, the manipulation or the use of all of these. Many people migrated from radio to television; television, including TV sets, were very expensive at first, which resulted in something called “teleneighbor,” that is, television was inserted into the closest community in this fashion. The soap opera was first aired by Tupi TV station, then by Record TV station, and then briefly, by Excelsior TV station. This is a long story which includes good authors who became equally good soap opera writers, such as Dias Gomes and Lauro César Muniz… The 1970’s were full of fantastic soap operas, the memory of which has lingered on. And in this long history, reception has become active and critical, with people calling attention to specific characteristics and devices, so that later on they can say: “look, in that episode, things were badly done, because the production had to rush, so-and-so was not able to film yesterday’s episode,” etc.

And the soap opera becomes work in progress…
Exactly. In fact, the name of my current research project is “the soap opera as the narrative of a nation.” But I think it is important to point out that the professional level achieved by Globo, its production skills, were built on the basis of this genre. Globo is the benchmark, and of course all of these issues have become more complex.

But television fiction, and the soap opera in particular, is the core, in your opinion.
That’s right.

In the 1980’s, I interviewed Manoel Carlos for Senhor magazine; at that time, he predicted the death of soap operas, which would be replaced by miniseries. However, more than 20 years have gone by since then and, in spite of these death sentences, we still watch soap operas during prime time, we watch the soap opera on the Record channel, etc.
Right. Strictly speaking, soap opera time begins a little before 6:00 pm, when Globo airs Malhação; this prime time goes on until 11:00 pm or later, with some interruptions for the evening news and other programs. One of the first things that Obitel is doing is studying the programming of proprietary fiction, which is related to production capacity. In Brazil, this programming encompasses soap operas, series, miniseries and even micro series – three or four episodes, a format that nobody is familiar with abroad. In Brazil, the initial soap opera matrix blossomed into various television fiction experiences coming together. I believe that Manoel Carlos, as well as Lauro César, referred so often to the death of the soap opera – or referred to their desire to stop writing soap operas – because this kind of work was very extenuating. It still is, but a little less so, because the writers began to rely on collaborators, something which did not exist in the 1980’s. Glória Perez and Gilberto Braga started out as collaborators of Janete Clair. An important fact to remember is that the weekly production of a soap opera corresponds to the making of two and a half films a week! Soap opera writing is hard work, because the author has to deal with  devices of naturalization that are entirely found in the text. This is illustrated by the scene of the mother talking to her daughter about sexuality, which I referred to: the text is a naturalization mechanism. The camera follows the actors, and a conversation takes place, which lasts the time it would last in real life. The time the viewer is watching TV, the mistakes, the redundancies have to occur because the viewer is watching TV, not just a soap opera, with the birds singing, the dog barking, the daughter calling… What about the attention being paid to a film shown in a dark cinema? This relationship, the fragmented reception, also has to be taken into consideration in a soap opera. Even the possibility of not watching the soap opera for ten days and then being able to understand the story. All of these issues were added to the soap opera’s characteristics. As time went by, this art, this technique that we follow, was being dealt with.

But it’s possible to have information on the unfolding of the soap opera by reading the newspaper, in the television sections, etc.
Right – that’s exactly the point I wanted to get to: everybody talks about soap operas. People watch soap operas and talk about them. This is what I refer to as semiosis, which makes soap operas what they are. Soap operas are discussed in newspapers, blogs, sites, the episodes are printed ahead of time in Sunday papers.

However, the soap opera no longer dominates the general scenario of Brazilian TV. Many different programs are now available on cable TV. Doesn’t this reduce the scope of such a Brazilian product?
The number of viewers has been dropping in relative terms for quite some time. The normal soap opera ratings in the 1970’s – I’m not talking about share – corresponded to more than 50 points, it was nearly 60 points of the Ibope rating. Another fact is what people say about the soap opera Roque Santeiro, whose last installment allegedly achieved a 100% share. There are more options now, more channels are available, and let’s not forget the Internet. Nowadays, many people do not watch TV, even though they would like to, because they are on the Internet for work purposes. Many people no longer work in only one place; many work at home in the evenings. This situation did not exist in the past. Therefore, we also need to understand these changes in people’s daily lives. When putting things into  perspective, we realize that television still has hegemony, in terms, if the Ibope ratings drop to thirty, having once stood at nearly 60 points, drop to 50, to 40, not only because this reflects the audience but also because it imposes a pattern.

We cannot end this interview without referring to Obitel. How did it all begin?
When I finished my research study on reception, I put in a request for a grant from FAPESP to take a post-doctorate course in Italy, which has a Fiction observatory – as it is referred to – coordinated by Milly Buonanno. This proposal had been made within the scope of Eurofiction, the European benchmark. I went away to do my post-doctorate studies in 2001. I wanted to analyze Brazilian soap operas from an international point of view. We cannot shut ourselves off from the rest of the world; we have to deal with other nations to understand our national traits. Of course I acknowledge the existence of Latin American soap operas, especially the Mexican ones, aired by Televisa. And we know that these Latin American soap operas enter the United States through the Hispanic community. Most of the countries around the world air the fiction genre on television. Everyone enjoys seeing him or herself in stories, in narratives, in contexts that relate to us. But that narrative is also a cultural industry fueled by capital and by the market, and therefore some parties dominate this, as exemplified by the US movie industry. Here in Brazil, we watch Brazilian productions on Globo, even on the other networks, that is, during prime time. This means a job market for actors, producers, writers, etc. This is significant and, if we begin to understand what is going on, things can increase in an extraordinary manner, We have moved away from the era of “canned” serials. Prime time is taken up by stories that talk about us.

What were your perceptions?
I decided that we needed to define how we would create a observatory of fiction, what the related logistics would be, and then which methodology should be used to do this. An observatory has to monitor the production, the audience, etc., with data. The data would be provided by Ibope. But we would have to generate other data at the Soap Opera Center of ECA, we would have to generate other data. The important thing to do was to build up a monitoring system to really report what happens and what doesn’t happen. In relation to soap operas, I realized that we were focusing strongly on case studies. We need to conduct macro analyses. And we also have to do unusual things in terms of observing soap operas, such as analyzing the production, the devices, the variety, co-production…

Is the observatory already working here in Brazil?
Yes, ever since I came back from Italy, in 2001, even though the Obitel, with this name, was only formalized in 2005. I already had the institutional support and therefore our challenge, as a group, was to insert the observatory inside the Soap Opera Research Center. After this center was re-named Obitel, we entered into an agreement with Ibope; we learned how to do things. We realized it would be possible to propose this project to our colleagues in the field of communication in other countries that were following the same path. The objective of Obitel is to work with production and viewer ratings research in relation to soap operas, miniseries, serials, etc. In short, we want to study television fiction. But I don’t want Obitel Brasil to be restricted to the team from ECA. We have 38 Brazilian soap opera researchers and I want all of them to be part of Obitel.

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