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TV Shows in Brazil Change Family Values

A 2012 article in New York magazine told the story about a trio of researchers who were trying to solve a sociological mystery. Over the course of 40 years, Brazil had experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that the Brazilian government never tried to limit family size. As a matter of fact, at some points it was illegal to advertise contraceptives. What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.

In the mid-60s television spread through Brazil, but it didn't arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil's main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn't. But it wasn't news or educational shows that caused the fertility drop. Instead, it was viewers' exposure to the popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The researchers also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.

Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. The researchers concluded that exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement "led to significantly lower fertility."

The author of the article in New York magazine called the impact of television in Brazil an example of "the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite." He went on to say,

For the most part, your television is not consciously attempting to alter your [beliefs]. It is mainly transmitting an ethos in which … authority figures of all kinds are often untrustworthy, sexual freedom is absolute, and social equality of all kinds is paramount. Within the moral universe of [TV] culture, the merits of these values are self-evident.

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