Political Programs on Television in Brazil 

In the upcoming weekend, Brazilians will cast their votes to elect a new President in a democratic fashion.  What does a democratic election mean?  Unfortunately, there are many meanings.  At one extreme, a totalitarian regime can conduct an 'election' in which one (and only one) slate is presented and 100% of the valid votes will go to this slate.  This may narrowly satisfy the definition of a vote by the people, but this would be objectively regarded as a sham due to the absence of any other choice.  At the other extreme, a totally free democracy is one in which anyone can run for any position and that the people can vote for any candidate.  In practice, there are some limitations due to barriers of entry.  In a large democracy, not all candidates are well-known and therefore the advantage goes to rich candidates or candidates from political parties with huge financial, political and human resources who can effectively buy an election through mass advertising and marketing.  US Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said, "This is now a club for millionaires.  You either have to have lots of money or you're indebted to somebody for the rest of your life."

To balance the inequities of political campaign resources, Brazil gives free television air time to candidates.  Television is the target medium of choice since it has nearly universal reach.  Television is also a public concession, so that all licensees must abide by the governmental regulations.  For several months before the election, the broadcast television stations yield two hours per day for political programs.  These special television programs are prepared by the candidates themselves, so that there can be no complaint of distortion.  The major candidates all have sophisticated advertising professionals working on their television programs.  For further details, see this article in Guardian and this article in Brazzil.  In the Guardian article, the political scientist, Jairo Nicolau, believes that 'no other country in the world gives as much free airtime to candidates than Brazil.'  In the USA, the comparable number is much lower (in the order of several hours of broadcast public debates during the entire campaign).  In the Brazzil article, "Former finance minister Mailson de Nóbrega recently pointed out that not only do 90 percent of Brazilian homes have television but the lower social classes use it as the main source of information. Voters from this section of the population tend to form their opinions from what they see on the screen."

It is one thing to broadcast political programs in order to inform the electorate.  But does anyone actually watch these programs?  This is the question that we will attempt to address in this article.  Our data come from the TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 5,312 persons between the ages of 12 and 64 years old conducted during the first half of 2002.  The survey universe includes the nine major cities, as well as urban portions of São Paulo state and the southeast area of Brazil.  Within this survey, the respondents were asked if they frequently watch political programs on television.  According to the TGI Brasil study, 15.4% said that they frequently watch these programs, 23.9% said they sometimes watch and then 57.4% said they never watch these programs.  Although television has near universal reach as a mass medium, the political programs reach less than half of the population even though they appear every day on prime time hours.

In the following chart, we show the incidence of viewing by age/sex groups.  Obviously, the interest is significantly higher among adults since young teenagers do not have voting rights yet.  Men are more interested in watching political programs than women.

(source: TGI Brasil)

In the Guardian article, a Workers party press officer Carlos Tibrucio was quoted as saying: "TV is the only way that many people can get involved in the democratic process. TV has a decisive role among the less educated.  It could decide the entire election."  The premise is that the types of political discourse that are available in print media (newspaper and magazines) do not diffuse deeply into the lower socio-economic stratum, due to lower  literacy levels and/or access.  

In the next chart, we show the incidence of viewing by socio-economic level, education and occupation.  Even though television is nearly universal in reach, the interest in these programs decreases as we step down the socio-economic ladder.  There are multiple interpretations, which cannot be resolved by these survey data.  First of all, this may be because the lower classes feel disconnected from political processes.  What, for example, is the difference between choosing one rich, powerful and corrupt politician over another?  Alternately, the lower classes are smart enough to see through these self-serving television propaganda that are manufactured by the candidates themselves.  The wonder, then, is why does anyone watch any of it, other than to criticize them for their distortions and lack of substance?

So far, we see that half the population never watch the political television programs.  Furthermore, among the frequent viewers, relatively few of them are the lower classes who presumably use television as their main source of information.  Does this negate the concept of political television programs?  At present, the criticism appears to exist at two levels.  The first level is directed towards the candidates and the political parties, to the point where these political programs are affectionately referred to as Quem Rouba Mas (Who Steals More).   Whereas democracy is the opposite of 'no choice' or 'a single forced choice,' it should not be a choice between two crooks either.  At this level, then, the problem is not with these television programs per se, but with reforming the politics-as-usual environment.  At another level, potential telespectators may find these programs to be boring, insubstantial, hypocritical, base and vile.   In that case, the producers will reap what they sow and be punished at the polling stations.  After all, that is the point of a democracy.

(posted by Roland Soong, 10/04/2002)

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