Once-censored soap opera carves niche in everyday Brazilian life

At precisely 9 p.m. six nights a week, life in Brazil screeches to a halt. People bolt the door, take the phone off the hook, and tune in their TV sets to ``Asa Branca'' -- an imaginary village put together with plywood, a splash of stage paint, and a web of romance and intrigue.

The story tells of a hero, martyred, as legend has it, as he defies a band of thieves who sacked the tiny, bucolic town in the backlands.

But the hero is actually a coward who flees before the marauders. His reappearance -- 17 years later to a town that has sainted him -- terrifies the town fathers who have built a monument, their reputations, and a booming tourist industry on the false myth.

The soap is a witty, often biting farce poking fun at greedy, vainglorious leaders. The military censored the original script 10 years ago.

Now under the relatively new civilian regime the new version of the soap is viewed nightly by 60 million Brazilians. Among its fans are President Jos'e Sarney and Armando Falcao, the justice minister who censored the program in 1975.

Globo television network's three-month-old soap opera is smashing all ratings records. It has entrenched TV Globo -- Latin America's largest and most powerful, television empire -- into Brazilian life.

``I do not like the word `power,' '' says Roberto Marinho, TV Globo's founder, owner, and executive director. ``Power is such a crushing word, and I don't want to destroy anyone. My purpose is not monopolistics.''

In a scant 20 years, Mr. Marinho has made TV Globo the undisputed leader among Brazil's five networks. Mr. Marinho and his three sons control seven stations and 46 affiliates, which generate 35,000 jobs. The financial publication, Gazeta Mercantil, estimates the television network brings in $500 million a year. Some sources put the revenues at twice that.

Globo's transmissions cover virtually all of Brazil's 3.3 million square miles. For this vast, unevenly developed country, Globo serves as a vital link between regions and the outside world.

``In a poor country, television is theater, newspaper, books, movies, and the marketplace all rolled into one,'' says Luiz Borgerth, Globo's commercial director. ``For the illiterate and semi-literate, TV is an obligatory companion.''

Little wonder that many call Roberto Marinho ``the most powerful man in Brazil.'' He dines with ministers, and generals, and hosts top ``empresarios'' in his sumptuous house in the Rio hills.

His TV network can make or break presidents. President-elect Tancredo Neves, who passed on before taking office last April, was made popular as a candidate and defeated his opponent in January's presidential election, largely because of Globo's favorable campaign coverage.

Marinho's influence has spilled beyond Brazil's borders. Currently, 130 countries buy Globo soap operas. They are translated or dubbed into 16 languages.

Along with this success, Marinho remains acutely sensitive to the foreign image of Brazil.

``I am saddened when I read foreign newspapers or watch television abroad and see that Brazil only appears when there is a disaster,'' he laments.

If Marinho has his way, a good part of the rest of the world may one day be looking at Brazil -- and maybe back at itself -- through the lens of Brazil's TV Globo.

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