Autumn 2001

ISSN 1473-219X





Thomas Tufte, Living with the Rubbish Queen: telenovelas, culture and modernity in Brazil, Luton: University of Luton Press (2000), ISBN 1 86020 541 0, £16.50.

In traditional accounts of debates on the topic of cultural imperialism, the flow of consumerist messages through international television has been a key concern. It is argued that one reason these messages have become global is because of the extensive reach of the United States-based media, advertising and telecommunications networks, helping the US to use 'soft power' to promote its commercial culture.

Two key studies undertaken for UNESCO by Karl Nordenstreng and Topo Varis, published in 1974 and 1985, found a clear pattern in the flow of international television programmes – mainly, though not exclusively, from the United States to other parts of the world. Both studies argued that there was generally 'one-way traffic,' in entertainment-oriented programming. This flow has arguably become much more pronounced in the era of globalisation and multi-channel television, though some non-Western countries such as India, Egypt and Brazil have also emerged as exporters of television programmes and films.

Despite technological advances, especially in satellite communications, the US continues to lead the field in the export of audio-visual products. The British Film Institute’s new Atlas of Global Media shows that in all major genres of television entertainment the United States dominates global exports, accounting for 85 per cent of all light entertainment programmes and 72 per cent of television dramas sold worldwide.

However, international cultural traffic is not just one way. Evidence shows that new transborder television networks are appearing as a result of the deregulation and privatisation of television industries, coupled with the extension of satellite footprints and the growth of direct to home (DTH) broadcasting in an increasingly global communication environment.

One key example of cultural export from the global South to the North is the Latin American soap opera, the telenovela. The Brazilian media giant TV Globo is the primary exporter of this genre of television across the globe – its programmes, mainly entertainment-orientated, are exported to 130 countries across the globe. With a total revenue of $4.4 billion, TV Globo is a multimedia giant – operating across different parts of the media: print, publishing, on-line, TV and video – as well as communications hardware, notably satellites. Its international partners include Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, the Mexican media conglomerate Televisa – the world's largest producer of Spanish-language television programmes – and the US-based TCI. Globo has also been involved in a consortium of DTH broadcasters with the aim to provide a range of programming on a pan-American basis.

Telenovelas occupy a pre-eminent position on television schedules across Latin America. In countries such as Brazil, they have had unprecedented success, receiving very high ratings, reaching a peak in the 1970s of 70 per cent of prime time, since declining to between 40 and 50 per cent in the 1990s. This popularity has been maintained despite the availability of a wide range of programming including dedicated sports and leisure channels, also remarkable given that the telenovelas are screened six days a week, occupying up to five hours of mainly prime time.

Thomas Tufte maps out the growth of this genre of television in Brazil, detailing its evolution in both its cultural and commercial contexts. Tufte's book aims to analyse how telenovelas 'take part in everyday life, as cultural expressions reflecting and interpreting issues of common concern, and taking account of the fact that they are cultural products guided by commercial incentives' (3).

Tufte, an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Copenhagen, has spent many years researching the topic (which formed part of his PhD thesis). They started as what he calls 'visualised radionovelas,' with the first Brazilian telenovela Sua Vida Me Pertence (Your Life Belongs to Me) broadcast in 1951. As in many other developing countries, early television broadcasting in Brazil was elitist in nature, with a bias towards programmes for 'cultured viewers'.

When the first daily telenovelas were produced in the 1960s they were sponsored by such multinational companies as Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Uniliver. Gradually production was taken over by domestic TV networks, on the model of Hollywood majors. Though borrowing technology and the commercial approach from Brazil's mighty North American neighbour, Tufte sees telenovela as a 'very national genre', arguing that 'it has natural links to international and historical genres, but was already by the early 1970s established as a genre on its own' (79).

According to Tufte the narrative is not concluded when the telenovela goes on air, but unfolds in a process dependent on audience response. Typically, when a telenovela starts 24 chapters (Tufte prefers this term to episode, which he believes indicates a closed narrative) are filmed. The author may have written another 15-20 chapters. A telenovela normally develops into 150-200 chapters.

As a case study, Tufte discusses The Rubbish Queen (Rainha da Sucata) screened in 177 chapters on TV Globo from 2 April to 26 October 1990, in the year celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of Globo. Set in Sao Paulo, Brazil's second largest city, The Rubbish Queen centres round two women – one upper class who represents the élitist European view of contemporary Brazil, and another a nouveau riche, both of whom struggle for the love and attention of the main male lead. Tufte discusses this as a narrative which encompasses a love story as well as the class conflict in a modernising society.

Tufte attempts to go beyond the traditional Eurocentric media ethnography to analyse what he calls 'the hybrid sphere of signification,' which 'constitutes a special organisation of time, space and social relations, possessing a special code of conduct which is central in the configuration of Latin American modernity and central in the articulation of Latin American identity – carried largely by emotion, and with the telenovelas as central agents' (226).

Like many of his North American and European colleagues, Tufte seems to have been touched by what has been called the Latin American 'magic realism.' One senses a certain degree of tension between the obvious limitations of European ethnography and the complexity of adapting these theoretical frameworks to analyse mediation in distant and complex socio-economic and cultural situations. Tufte wisely says: 'be cautious in generalising. Universalism is difficult to handle. Focus on the reality at stake, carry out the relevant historical analyses, be loyal to the richness of detailed descriptions – in them is hidden the cultural diversity, the nuances' (232). In fairness to Tufte, the wealth of detailed observation and description is in evidence in ample measure in this book. However, any such work has to be careful to avoid the Western fascination for the alleged or imaginary exotica of the so-called Third World.

Daya Kishan Thussu

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