Globo Politics - Brazil's Media Powerhouse Seeks New Life in Latin America
Hinchberger, Bill, The Nation
In the waning days of the 1994 presidential campaign, Brazil's leftist challenger took to wearing a beanie topped by a little model satellite dish. Candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wasn't vying for the comedy vote. He wanted to dramatize what he considered collusion between the government and the country's dominant television network, Rede Globo, to boost the fortunes of his opponent.
A month before Election Day, Brazilians with satellite dishes captured the off-air studio feed of a pre-interview conversation between Finance Minister Rubens Ricupero and a Globo reporter. The two were caught discussing strategies to insure favorable coverage of the Real Plan, an anti-inflation scheme launched by Fernando Henrique Cardoso (now President) as finance minister before he resigned to enter the electoral fray. Globo issued a firm denial of journalistic malfeasance; Ricupero took the hit and stepped down.
The lore of recent Brazilian political history is full of similar tales. For decades, TV Globo (as it's known) has had a near-monopoly on TV viewership and a symbiotic relationship with successive military and civilian governments. Its political and cultural sway in Brazil is unrivaled. "Globo has a very pervasive influence on diverse aspects of Brazilian society," comments Raul Reis, a former Brazilian journalist who teaches at the Institute for Human Communication at California State University in Monterey.
Producing Brazilian-made programming in accordance with international technical standards, the television network grew to become the flagship of a multimedia Globo Organization-including cellular phone service, cable, television stations in Portugal and Mexico, book and magazine publishing, Internet and film production. The conglomerate ranked fourteenth in this year's Global 50 list of the world's top media and entertainment companies compiled by the trade bible Variety. It ranks just two slots behind NBC and one ahead of Pearson, the top British firm. The Globo Organization generated $4.9 billion in revenues in the last fiscal year-more than twice the figure for its largest Latin rival, Argentina's Clarin Group (twenty-ninth overall on the Variety list).
These days Globo's direct political influence in Brazil is on the wane, but its cultural and financial power continue to grow. The company is dramatically expanding its role in Brazilian and Latin American media, transforming itself from an old-style family fiefdom into a twenty- first-century media conglomerate. Most recently, Globo struck a strategic alliance with Microsoft, which paid $126 million in August for an 11.5 percent share in Globo Cabo, the company's cable subsidiary. Now an international economic powerhouse, Globo no longer needs the perks its proximity to local power once offered: It is on the road to becoming Latin America's prime player in the world's mass-media market.
The shift can be traced to the de facto retirement of Globo's founder, 94-year-old Roberto Marinho. Marinho's influence has been so pervasive in Brazil that a documentary on Britain's Channel Four, Beyond Citizen Kane, compared him unfavorably to that fictional American media magnate based on William Randolph Hearst.
In the mid-sixties Marinho, then publisher of the Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo, launched TV Globo with technical and financial support from the Time-Life Group. Marinho's was the only company to evade a ban (still in force) on foreign investment in the media; Brazil's military dictatorship looked the other way. Marinho kept close enough to the junta line that TV Globo quickly earned the nickname "The Ministry of Information."
Marinho's political clout survived the 1985 transition to democracy, when Jose Sarney became the country's first civilian vice president and then president following two decades of military rule. Sarney's last finance minister, Mailson da Nobrega, told me he was forced to submit to a grilling from Marinho before his nomination could become official. "He had another candidate for the Finance Ministry, and I had to overcome his opposition," said da Nobrega. "It was just like a confirmation hearing."
In 1994 rumors flew that Marinho might be personally behind the incident involving former finance minister Rubens Ricupero. While unsubstantiated, the gossip fed on the media mogul's own statements of political engagement, as when he remarked in 1987 to the New York Times: "We give all necessary information [on our news programs], but our opinions are in one way or another dependent on my character. I assume responsibility for everything I run."
Globo's best-known alleged dirty trick dates back a decade, when Lula lost the 1989 presidential runoff to Fernando Collor de Mello. After the prohibition of election-eve electoral advertising had taken effect, Globo ran a perversely edited version of the final Collor-Lula debate, contrasting a highly selective reprise of Collor's sharp ripostes along with a couple of Lula's gaffes. "They were playing their last hand when we had no time to react," Lula commented to me in a 1990 interview.
When Collor took office in 1990, he unexpectedly rebuffed Marinho, and instead of consulting the media mogul on his choice for Communications Minister, he chose a man who as a member of Congress had threatened to open an inquiry into reports of corruption within the Globo empire. It is widely believed that this snub was linked to an old feud between Collor's older brother Leopoldo, a former Globo executive, and Marinho, who fired him.
But such overt political shenanigans may soon become a thing of the past. A new leadership at Globo, headed by Marinho's sons but administered by button-down professionals, including one of the world's highest-ranking female executives, seems to be leading the company in new directions. "They're moving from an old-guard Latin American operation to a professionally run business," says Chris Taylor, Latin American media analyst at the investment bank ING Barings.
If Globo flexes its muscles these days, it is in the name of profit-not ideology. Mailson da Nobrega, now a business consultant, comments, "The idea seems to be to build the empire financially and economically, not to pursue political power-or to pursue power in a different way, like Murdoch."
Changes in the media and communications industries (privatization, the proposed liberalization of prohibitions against foreign investments in domestic media, and the growth of the Internet and cable TV) are opening new opportunities for Globo. The Globo Cabo-Microsoft deal, for example, aims to exploit the local company's cable infrastructure to offer Brazilians state-of-the-art Internet access; it has already signed up some 1.1 million subscribers, representing the upper class, the most sought-after demographic in Brazilian society.
Globo enjoyed a spectacular 56.93 percent market share among network broadcasters in Brazil last year, according to pollster Ibope. A recent Newsweek article reported that the station pulls in 60 percent of TV advertising revenue in Brazil. Its nightly newscast stands as Brazil's "paper" of record-all the news that's fit to proclaim in a barely literate society. The network's entertainment programs, particularly its nightly telenovelas (soap operas), are considered so influential that serious scholars credit (or blame) them with everything from a drop in the birthrate to an otherwise inexplicable boom in the sale of cowboy hats. Venicio de Lima, a veteran Globo-watcher at the Center for the Study of Media and Politics at the University of Brasilia, labels today's Globo "the New Brazilian Communications System."
Since 1976 Globo has peddled its melodramatic and humorous telenovelas to over 100 countries. Telenovela export Escrava Isaura ("Isaura the Slave Girl") became the first foreign-television import to enter China following the Cultural Revolution. Isaura's success transformed its star, actress Lucelia Santos, into one of China's biggest celebrities. When President Cardoso visited China in 1995 he took Santos along. Photographers caught Chinese President Jiang Zemin pointing at her like a typical star-struck fan.
Telenovela exports may spread Brazilian middlebrow culture around the world, but Globo's most recent initiatives will ultimately have far more impact on the international media landscape. Along with Murdoch's News Corporation and Mexico's Televisa, Globo controls Sky Latin America, a satellite television enterprise. In September Globo launched a Portuguese-language cable station in the United States and Japan. The move appears to be a springboard into the $1 billion Latin-language market in the United States and into Spanish-speaking Latin America itself, reported the Brazilian business daily Gazeta Mercantil. The company is also considering the launch of a Pan-American sports channel.
Back on the home front, Globo's dominion is being challenged for the first time by a number of other television channels, which are growing more audacious in their attempts to exploit the dramatic growth in the number of Brazilian viewers, particularly among the poor and working class. Thirty-four million TV sets have been sold since 1994, extending ownership to 87 percent of the nation's households. The result has been a rash of competitors who are attempting to outflank Globo with ever more sensational programming, featuring wrestling fashion models, a dominatrix game-show hostess and racy telenovelas. The new formulas have given Globo its first taste of serious competition, and the company's response has been swift: It is imitating the successful formulas and buying out the suddenly popular TV personalities.
Globo's public face now consists of lowbrow personalities on the air and low-key suits in the boardroom. The family hacienda has gone corporate, but the legacy of Citizen Marinho continues to cast its long shadow.
Bill Hinchberger, based in Sao Paulo (www.hinchberger.com), is a former correspondent for the Financial Times and Variety in Brazil. He wrote about the Brazilian landless peasant movement in the March 2, 1998, issue of The Nation.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Globo Politics - Brazil's Media Powerhouse Seeks New Life in Latin America. Contributors: Hinchberger, Bill - Author. Magazine title: The Nation. Volume: 269. Issue: 18 Publication date: November 29, 1999. Page number: 25. © 1999 The Nation Company L.P. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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