Brazilian soap opera beats politics

Jonathan Watts

In Rio de Janeiro

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff may be one of the country's most popular presidents ever, but even she knows better than to challenge the prime-time power of the TV phenomenon known as Avenida Brasil. Rousseff, who enjoys a 62% approval rating, postponed a rally to endorse her party's candidate in a Sao Paulo mayoral race on October 19 because it would coincide with the finale of the telenovela.

The last episode of Avenida Brasil was a melodrama that included a polygamous wedding, a feast and the answer to the question on tens of millions of lips: "Who killed Max?"

Against such competition, Rousseff's aides feared the rally would fall flat. Newspapers pointed out that Rousseff was a fan of the show, which had been running up to six days a week since March, and may simply have wanted to be among the 50% of the viewing public expected to tune in for the climax.

It makes sense for her to tune into Avenida Brasil's audience, which epitomises the rise of a formerly poor social group that is now in the most powerful consumer stratum. Brazil's "C-class" — as they are categorised — have grown rapidly in size and influence over the past decade thanks to the growth of the economy, widening credit lines and efforts to address inequality.

Since 2004, the government says, 32-million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty. Last year this helped the C-class, defined as those earning 1 000 to 4 500 reals a month (about R4 000 to R19 000), to constitute for the first time a majority of Brazil's population of 196-million. According to a study, the C-class accounts for 76% of supermarket sales and 60% of visits to hairdressing salons.

Rede Globo, the TV channel that dominates the "telenovela" industry, is angling more shows and lucrative product placements in their direction. Few more so than Avenida Brasil, named after a busy road in Rio de Janeiro that leads from rundown suburbs and favela shanty towns into the smart city centre.

Telenovelas have long been a feature of Brazilian life and mix plots from different classes and controversial issues. But rarely has one pushed more C-class buttons. This is evident in the opening credits, set over a baile charme dance track and images of a pulsating nightclub, and the bling-bedecked cast of characters: a cuckolded footballer, the owner of a manicure parlour and the sparsely clad piriguete party girl, Suelen.

Marieta Pinheiro de Carvalho, of the University of Rio de Janeiro, said: "In previous novelas there was too much value placed on the richest class … groups that didn't have much power in the past now have more economic and social influence so they are contesting a greater public space."

At least two lead characters are raised in rubbish dumps. One plots revenge. The other, Max, has been murdered. The culprit is the source of as much speculation as "Who shot JR?" in Dallas.

This is not that first time that a telenovela has overshadowed politics. In 1993 the impeachment of president Fernando Collor de Mello was pushed off the front pages by the real-life murder of soap star Daniella Perez, by the actor playing her jealous boyfriend in De Corpo e Alma (Of Body and Soul).

Additional reporting by Carolina Massote — © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Jonathan Watts
Jonathan Watts works from Bristol, England. Copywriter, Classics MA and author. Bristol, books, gigs, dogs. Jonathan Watts has over 100 followers on Twitter.

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