What Prevents Cable TV from Taking off in Brazil?

By Reis, Raul | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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What Prevents Cable TV from Taking off in Brazil?


Reis, Raul, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


In sheer numbers, Brazil is the Americas' second largest democracy and the continent's third largest economy. Brazil's population--over 157 million people in 1997(1)--is second only to the United States. Geographically speaking, Brazil is larger than the continental U.S. (3.285 million square miles versus 2.943 million square miles).(2) In the 1990s, the biggest and, by all accounts, wealthiest Latin American country has experienced an economic boom that, combined with low inflation rates and a stable economy, has thrived according to socioeconomic indicators (Azevedo, 1996).

The Brazilian middle class represents one third of the country's population, some 50 to 60 million people, "a tantalizing market, the second largest in the Western hemisphere for television and consumerism" (Kottak, 1991, p. 71). For decades, those numbers have enticed, but yet puzzled, corporate executives interested in exploring the potentially successful Brazilian cable TV market. Brazil's recent venture into "pay TV" seems to be a success story in the making, but for many international media analysts the question is: Why is it taking so long to happen? With all these favorable indicators, why hasn't Brazil indeed become the second largest cable TV market in the West?

In 1993, only 0.8 percent of Brazilian households were connected to cable TV (Hoineff, 1996), even though 81 percent of all homes had at least one television set (one of the highest rates in Latin America).(3) In 1996, cable subscribers had jumped to almost 5 percent, or about 1.5 million cable households (Hoineff, 1996). It is impressive growth, but still disappointing when compared to the average of all Latin America of 11 percent of cable households (Arenas, 1997). The explanation for this slow growth lies in a convergence of cultural, economic, political and technological factors that have conspired to delay adoption of new telecommunications technologies by the largest Brazilian media conglomerates. This examination of the problem will explore why cable TV's growth has been slow in Brazil.

Brazilian Television's Pervasiveness

Recent figures portray a limited penetration for Brazilian pay TV--pay TV, or TV paga, as cable TV and satellite dishes are commonly called (Paoletti, 1996). In 1993, only 0.8 percent of Brazilian households enjoyed TVpaga, in contrast to 28 percent of homes in Argentina (Hoineff, 1996). A year later, the number had jumped to 2.3 percent, or 700,000 subscribers. In early 1996, Brazilian homes with cable TV neared 1.5 million (Hoineff, 1996). That number had doubled by March of 1998 (Paxman, 1998).

Yet, 2.9 million subscribers represented only 8.4 percent of 34.5 million Brazilian television households.(4) Cable TV's penetration was estimated to have grown to 57 percent of TV households in Argentina in 1998; 13.4 percent of TV households in Mexico; and 6.9 percent in Venezuela in the same year (Paxman, 1998). In Brazil, however, for over 90 percent of the population, broadcast TV remains the only available option.

The preponderance of broadcast TV in Brazil appears even more dramatic when the country's high illiteracy rates are considered: 17 percent in 1993.(5) With a population of over 150 million people, Brazil has surprisingly few print media (or surprisingly few overall readers). Nine hundred Brazilian magazines and 1,650 newspapers (300 dailies) were being published regularly in 1996 (Schneider, 1996, pp. 194-5). Daily newspaper circulation is estimated at 55 per 1,000 inhabitants (World Almanac, 1997). On average, 360 million books are sold annually. Veja, the leading weekly newsmagazine, had a circulation of over 1 million in 1996, twice as much as the competing IstoE. Folha de S. Paulo (circulation: 700,000 daily, 1.7 million on Sundays), O Globo (370,000 and 1 million) and O Estado de S. Paulo are the leading daily newspapers in the country (Schneider, 1996).

Hoineff observed that there are not many cultural choices outside television in Brazil: "[T]elevision culture in Brazil is closely related to the absence of alternatives in a society with no access to other types of cultural consumption" (1996, p.

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