Globo Politics - Brazil's Media Powerhouse Seeks New Life in Latin America

Article excerpt

Sao Paulo

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. …