Network-Builder Describes Role in Brazil's TV Globo

The American pioneer of a powerhouse Brazilian television network tells his story at UCLA.

Network-Builder Describes Role in Brazil

Roberto Marinho and Joseph Wallach. (Photo courtesy of TV Globo)

By Angilee Shah, Staff Writer

Even people who might have had questions about the news almost always accepted the Globo novelas.

Joseph Wallach tells the story like this: He arrived in Brazil in July 1965 as a Time-Life executive to check in on the company's investment in a television network that had begun operations in Rio de Janeiro. The network had 700 employees, counting  70 in the orchestra, and Brazil had just 3 million television sets. It was airing live programs— popular variety-show segments featured dancing girls and pie-eating contests—and American shows like the Beverly Hillbillies.

Fifteen years later, Wallach left Brazil. Time-Life had long since pulled out, having never made a penny on the investment. But in those 15 years, the project grew into one of the largest, most successful private television networks in the world, a media powerhouse that put Brazilian programs on the 31 million television sets around the country and countless more around the globe.

Wallach, 83, told his story, which touched on the financial and corporate structures he built for TV Globo as well as his kinship with Globo's president, Roberto Marinho, at a May 10, 2007, event hosted by the recently renamed UCLA Latin American Institute. He recounted his experiences seeing Globo through military dictatorship, arson and lawlessness, and Brazil's television boom.

"I'm a little bit of walking history," he told the audience.

TV Globo did not enjoy its phenomenal growth without controversy. Many expected the network to fall victim to some form of "cultural imperialism" because it intially had an American investor and was following some of the mores of commercial broadcasting in the United States, said panelist Joseph Straubhaar, a global media scholar from the University of Texas at Austin. His own experience living in Brazil and researching the network led him to a different conclusion, however. Straubhaar said that while TV Globo adopted on an international model for operations, 90 percent of its content is now produced in Brazil.

"Few other countries did as effective a job in using television as a nation-building tool," Straubhaar said.

Under Dictatorship

Suspicion about TV Globo's American connections was widespread. The month after he arrived in Brazil, Wallach recalled, he was summoned before a congressional panel investigating foreign interventions. He was questioned for five hours about everything from Time-Life's involvement with Globo to his feelings about the Vietnam War.

Panelists agreed that international involvement in the company did give Globo a corporate infrastructure that allowed the network to grow. One of Wallach and Marinho's biggest "bits of genius," Straubhaar said, was to hire outside professionals to handle administrative and financial aspects of the business. Wallach imposed a budget and was instrumental to ridding the network of corrupt, familial systems.

Globo's founding president, who passed away in 2003, was a courageous man, Wallach said. "He was constantly debating with the military," which often threatened to take over TV Globo.

Podcast: Hear Joseph Wallach talk about how a station burned to the ground and TV Globo won its independence from Time-Life.

Wallach and Marinho led TV Globo during Brazil's tumultuous years under a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. Wallach remembered years of crackdowns, when TV Globo had to have scripts approved by officials and censors were literally in the news department.

The dictatorship, however, also provided a basis for Globo to grow. From the mid-60s to the 70s, the military government saw television as a way to solidify a national identity. It subsidized the purchase of television sets and pushed microwave and satellite systems, increasing the market that TV Globo could reach.

Today, the network's news program, Jornal Nacional, is the most-watched and most influential in Brazil.

"It's remarkable what a wide variety of people depend on Globo news," Straubhaar said. "Even people who might have had questions about the news almost always accepted the Globo novelas," the prime-time soap operas the network has become known for.

TV Globo's novelas are not just ubiquitous in Brazil. They are sold to over 100 countries around the world, from East Timor to Angola to the United States. The programs have also reached UCLA's doorstep. Denise Pacheco, a UCLA faculty member who teaches Portuguese language courses, says that she uses Globo programs that are streamed on the Internet to engage her students.

Thereza Quintella, Consul General of Brazil in Los Angeles, recalled a story from Portugal, where the parliament session was interrupted so that legislators could watch the final episode of Gabriela, a 1970s novela starring actress Sônia Braga. "This is the woman who stopped Parliament," she said.

Roberto Marinho's grandson, Roberto Marinho Neto, was also a panelist at the event. In his early 20s, Neto is part of the third generation of Marinhos to work at the network, and he praised Wallach's contributions. The network, he said, is now the first channel to air 24 hours of Portuguese programs on all five continents.

"The dream he [Wallach] worked so hard too materialize is now cherished by Brazil," Neto said.