Twilight of the Soaps

by Ana Maria Bahiana May 7, 2014

Slowly, gradually but inexorably, over the past decade, something extraordinary has been happening in Brazil : after half a century of total domination as the country’s go-to form of audio-visual entertainment, the telenovela is steadily fading, its audience in a continuous free fall. In its place, a new generation of viewers, who grew up with American series and sitcoms, from Friends to The X Files and Lost, are seeking out the local equivalent of their passions. And there’s plenty of it.

A new law is one big part of this new trend: introduced in March of last year, it mandates a minimum of 3.5 weekly hours of original, locally-produced, scripted content to all pay-TV channels wishing to continuously operate in Brazil. Considering that Brazil is the fifth largest pay TV market in the world and the biggest in Latin America, with 30.5 million subscribers (and counting…), it’s easy to understand why, in a matter of months, a big wave of locally produced series and mini-series flooded the market.

That, however, is just part of the story – all these new productions could have just died out without finding an audience. And of course some of them did just that, in the usual survival of the fittest mode of the TV eco-system . But by the end of 2013, three Brazilian series were firmly placed among the top 10 most-watched shows on PAY TV: Fox Channel’s If I Were You (Se eu Fosse Você), a romantic comedy based on the 2006 hugely successful movie of the same tile; Multishow’s comedy series Adorable Psychosis (Adorável Psicose); and female-skewed GNT’s drama series Sessão de Terapia (Therapy Session), a Brazilian version of the acclaimed Israeli format In Treatment, that HBO had already brought to the US.

All major local producers are currently engaged in TV projects, with a flurry of newcomers battling it out for an opportunity to pitch and close deals on drama and comedy series. The government’s newly announced Audio Visual Development Fund contributed to the flurry of activity by including made-for-TV content, in it’s program of incentives for the first time.

Battling behemoths like Fox Channel’s The Walking Dead – still the leader in Brazilian pay TV - American Horror Story and Revenge, the local series quickly established a foothold on the expanding market, proving that there was an audience in sync with formats and aesthetics that for decades had played second fiddle to the all-powerful telenovela.

In the exact same period, from 2013 to early 2014, all telenovelas, across the board, suffered a dramatic dip in viewers. In 2013, all soaps dropped in audience - from a 5% drop in primetime soaps to an 11% fall in late-afternoon teen novelas. The high rates of the 2012 hit Avenida Brasil, that amassed an astonishing 80 million viewers are a but a distant memory.

Actually, Avenida Brasil could be the exception that proves the norm: overall, from 2000 to 2013, the late-afternoon teen novelas dropped 15 points to a 26% current share, and the once-all powerful primetime novela went from a 70% share to an average of 50%.

Sure, these are still some impressive numbers. Rooted in a tradition that goes back to radio serials from the 1930s; telenovelas will take some time before losing their role front and center in Brazilian TV. They are, in fact, still the most lucrative export product of the budding Brazilian audio-visual industry, with titles being regularly sold to Eastern Europe, Portugal, Africa and Spanish-language territories (including the US Spanish language stations).

But the popular format has certainly seen better days, and finds itself out of step with a new generation of viewers raised on the internet, with easy access to international television and new demands on both the aesthetic and thematic fronts. Old-fashioned forbidden romances, family secrets, evil twins and vengeful reincarnated spirits will just not cut it with audiences used to avidly following Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

Ana Maria Bahiana