Why would an aid agency be interested in television soap operas? Because the agencies like to see the population growth of developing countries slowing down, and because soap operas in one developing country seem to be linked with lower fertility.

In Brazil, where population growth is down to 1.1 per cent, about 40 million people watch the mid-evening telenovela from Globo, the leading television network. The action often takes place in Rio de Janiero, where Globo is based, among families which are smaller, whiter and richer than average. The scriptwriters have, let’s say, an agenda. “Their plots often tilt in a progressive direction: AIDS is discussed, condoms are promoted and social mobility is exemplified,” reports The Economist.

A study for the Inter-American Development Bank tracked the expansion of Globo across the country and compared this to data on fertility and divorce. The authors argue that the “small, happy families” portrayed in the soaps helped to bring the country’s birth rate down from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 in 2000 as women moved to the cities (men, too, presumably). Controlling for other factors, the arrival of Globo was associated with a decline of 0.6 percentage points in the probability of a woman giving birth in a given year — an effect equivalent to two extra years of schooling.

The effect on divorce was smaller, but noticeable: a rise of 0.1 to 0.2 per cent in the number of women aged 15-49 who were divorced or separated. The researchers found that between 1975, when divorce was first mooted, and 1984 about one in five of the main characters in Globo soaps were divorced or separated — a higher percentage than in the real Brazil — and not just as a result of machismo: about 30 per cent of female leads were unfaithful to their partners.

The authors reckon that watching “empowered” women having fun in Rio made other women more independent. Other research shows divorce and lower fertility are linked to less domestic violence, says The Economist, in an attempt to make both trends look good for women, not just for the population controllers in the Inter-American Development Bank. ~ The Economist, March 12

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet