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Soap operas miss the boat!

Fall in the status of the genre as a privileged place to discuss national issues

TADEU VILANIIn 1981, during a serious political crisis in the Figueiredo administration , the all-powerful Golbery do Couto e Silva resigned from government. He justified his decision to journalists by saying: “Don’t ask me anything. I’ve just left Sucupira.” The reference to the fictitious city in the television soap opera O bem-amado (1973) [The well-loved one] and the mini-series of the same name (1980-1984), by Dias Gomes, at a delicate moment like that, reveals the power at the time of television soap operas as a representation of national reality and how Brazilians recognized themselves in such representations. “Starting with conflicts of gender, generation, class and religion, soap operas told stories of daily life that transformed them into a privileged stage for interpreting Brazil. The country, which was becoming modern within the context of modernization centered on consumption and not on the affirmation of citizenship, recognized itself on the television screen in a glamorous, white universe,” explains Esther Hamburger, a professor from the Department of Cinema, Radio and Television at the University of São Paulo (USP) and author of the study O Brasil antenado (Jorge Zahar Editor) [Brazil tuned in]. She analyzed the new directions of the genre in her research Formation of the intellectual field and the culture industry in contemporary Brazil, which was supported by FAPESP and coordinated by USP sociologist Sérgio Miceli. In addition to Esther, the project brings together other researchers from various areas and themes.

“In a Brazil that was becoming democratic, soap operas dealt first hand with subjects that would form part of the political scene in the following decade. But today they’ve lost their privileged status of raising questions about national issues. They’re no longer able to mobilize public opinion, are no longer totally Brazilian and neither are they the country’s showcase. They’re probably no longer capable of synthesizing the country,” advises the researcher. “After all, that centralized country that could be represented hegemonically no longer exists. New media, like cable TV and the Internet, have taken away from the soap opera its character as an arena for raising issues. Society has changed and there’s a lot of diversification. Literacy has increased and TV is no longer the only place where you can find information,” she observes. For Esther, it is no longer possible in the country today for a soap opera to speak to the entire nation. “There’s no longer one Brazil on TV, but several,” is her assessment.

“The soap opera remains strategic in the make up and competition between TV companies, but its capacity to polarize the national audiences is in decline. The genre has far too many messages with social content, but is losing its esthetic differential and power to be controversial. The nation is no longer the central theme, because the themes go beyond borders. There are fewer and fewer references to current and controversial subjects. The choice is for politically correct campaigns, often in detriment to dramatic art, thus tying the hands of authors in terms of creativity,” says Esther. According to the researcher, the structure of melodramatic conflicts that sustains the narrative is still present, but in stories that are once again being restricted to imagined spaces, like those of women, the initial audience when Brazilian television soap operas (telenovelas) were just beginning, and with less cultural value. The genre also no longer attracts as many creative talents; texts are weak and plots are repetitive, with their insistence on the old and conventional clichés that were hits in the past. “Even so it cannot be denied that the soap opera may go back to having the political and cultural impact it had before and influencing behavior and fashion. It’s still a place where something can be learned, especially for the new predominant audience, which is below classes A and B,” she says.

From its heyday to the recent crisis of a declining audience was a long road. In the beginning, in productions of the 1960’s, such as the exotic Sheik de Agadir, a paradigm that was broken with the realism of Beto Rockfeller, which represented the contemporary life of the emerging middle classes, the “fantasy” style ruled, which was full of sentimentalism. In the 1970’s, the limitations of melodrama were broken, but soap operas then became showcases of the modern being: fashion and behavior. “During the dictatorship, Globo adopted the official discourse, but understood that in soap operas, instead of hiding the problems, it was better to incorporate them into the plots, as it did in O bem-amado. It was the beginning of a growing criticism of the process of modernization,” recalls Mauro Porto, a professor at Tulane University and author of the study Telenovelas and national identity in Brazil. Realism took a hold of the genre: a survey in 1988 revealed that 58% of those interviewed wanted to see “reality” in soap operas and 60% wanted the plots to talk about politics. “The authors of a Leftist generation saw themselves as responsible for a national project and popular awareness,” notes Porto. “Soap operas recorded the dramas of urbanization, social differences, the fragmentation of the family, the liberalization of marital relations and consumption patterns. They reached their peak when they talked about the problems of modernization, as did Vale tudo (1988) [Anything goes] and Roque Santeiro (1985),” says Esther. However, the TV network Manchete came up with an alternative interpretation of the country with Pantanal, full of the exotic and erotic, which broke the political cycle of soap operas, even at Globo, which was obliged to emulate the new concept. “The ‘Pantanal effect’, however, left no heirs and today has been forgotten.”

“In the course of all this the telenovela created a common repertoire in which people of different social classes, generations, sexes, races and regions recognized themselves, an ‘imagined community’ to raise questions about Brazil, familiarity with social problems, an ideal vehicle to construct citizenship and a narrative of the nation,” analyzes Maria Immacolata Lopes, a professor at the School of Communication and Arts (ECA-USP) and coordinator of the Telenovela Research Center. The model wore out and the country changed. “Between 1970 and 1980 there was magic between the audience and soap operas. Corruption was seen for the first time in a public rather than a political arena in Vale tudo and soap operas were at the forefront,” notes Esther. “Today corruption is commonplace; it?s no longer controversial and repeating it makes it boring. In 1988 it was something new; in 2011 it’s old hat.” Soap operas are no longer in tune with the country. “Even contemporary foreign academic literature about television no longer discusses Brazilian telenovelas and the Brazilian ‘case’ has lost ground both internally and externally in the face of a renewal of international television fiction, especially the American series, which have acquired room on Brazilian channels, a new flow of imported programs that the soap operas replaced in previous decades,” she explains. Today’s sitcoms, unlike those of the past when they were “closed works” and not impromptu, are open to success indicators and can change their direction while on air, making allusions to political and cultural elements of American reality and raising questions about the Unites States.

“We no longer have the same national audience, with all the classes and places. Everything has become more popular and soap operas provide this viewing audience with social merchandising, sex, a dynamic of plots that change constantly, action and murders,” is her analysis. For the researcher, this break in dramatic art reduces even further the scope of the public because it makes a large part of the audience lose interest. Esther quotes new alternatives, such as Cordel encantado [Enchanted Cord], which is reminiscent of fantasy soap operas. There is also a search for new authors and directors, or the remake of former successes, such as O astro [The star], to repeat successful formula of the past, but even after being adapted, they still have the flavor of “something old.” “We don’t know if Brazilians still want realism, but they’ve undoubtedly got tired of the urban soap operas set on the Rio-São Paulo axis. They’d like to see new realities and find out about the regional aspect that used to be despised or caricatured.” Renewal is not easy, as was shown with the failure of experiments such as Cidade de Deus [City of God] or Antonia. “One solution would be to show the violence of cities and drug-trafficking, but this is still taboo in soaps. Cinema has revealed itself to be more ‘in tune’, by showing the parallel powers of the outskirts, as in Tropa de elite [The Elite Squad], or Dois filhos de Francisco [Francisco’s Two Sons], a movie that shows a Brazil where people from humble backgrounds become achievers.” For the first time ever soap operas have missed the boat and history is passing them by . In a recent scandal a political columnist did not use a quote from a telenovela, like Golbery, to talk about the case, but a catch phrase from the movie Tropa de elite: “Palocci, ask to leave!”

The project
Formation of the intellectual field and the cultural industry in Brazil (nº 08/55377-3); Type Thematic Project; Coordinator Sérgio Miceli – Unicamp; Investment R$ 534,463.00