Did Soap Operas Shrink Brazil’s Families?

Between 1960 and 2000, Brazil’s fertility rate plummeted from 6.3 to 2.3. The only other country with a comparable decline during that period was China, under its rigid one-child policy. But what was behind the Brazilian fertility plunge?

One major factor may have been the influence of soap operas, according to a fascinating new working paper by Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea, issued by the Bureau of Economic Analysis for Development. Brazil’s most popular prime-time soaps have for years revolved around small and stable middle-class families that were much smaller than the traditional Brazilian family. The study found that wherever the soaps aired, the fertility for women dropped significantly, as they adapted to the reality they saw on television.

Imported soap operas, meanwhile, seem to have had no effect on fertility rates.

The study builds on work by the economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster on the role television plays in the empowerment of women in rural India. But this new study is among the first to focus on the effects of specific programming.

(Hat tip: Foreign Policy)


Being from Brazil myself, I find that's an interesting theory, but I can't help but partially agree with dan p: development is far more important than any soap operas.
OR, you could say that fertility dropped because people would rather watch the soap than... go to bed? This did create a serious conflict in many households, since it's almost always women who want to stay up and watch the soap (it goes until around 10:30 pm) and the men would just go to bed and sleep.

TV does influence people. Remember the Rachel do? We had that happen in Brazil, with actress after actress. People do emulate what they see on TV, so the theory might be less flawed than we think.


Maybe the SOAP OPERAS reflected reality, not the other way around. Even if they were aired before, they could have anticipated the trend caused by a changing modern world

Tiago intropedi

Yes is Truth

as a Brazillian I know is truth

First when the couple get home after work, the man wants to see soccer and the women wants to see Soap Opera, sometimes the Family has only 1 Television, when this point the WAR has already began, start argue with each other because wanna to see their favorite "show" , soccer for man and Soap Operas for women.
When normaly the couple still argue for days sometimes for week, and they don't have the normal talk and don't sleep together.

When They make peace, it's not going to long, because next week has soccer !!
It is the reason

Right now you know why family brazillian Shrink !


Interesting... Anyone know about a woman in Brazil whose decision to have, or when to have, children was influenced by novelas?

Would really like to get in touch with her to talk about her decision. I am interested in socio-demographic issue like the one this study analyzes.

The study also mentions that they found an increase in the number of people named after novela characters...

Again, if anyone knows a woman in Brazil that would fit the characteristics of the sample group covered by the study, please let me know. CoolmanConsulting@gmail.com.


Great discussion!

dan p

Now that I think of it, I seem to remember something in the news a few years ago about the tv show BAYWATCH having a 'detrimental effect' on body image issues in the Philippines. Apparently young girls wanted to emulate the 'actresses' on the show and eating disorders became more prevalent (whereas beforehand they had not been such an issue). Of course, I'm sure there were other media influences as well, so to attribute that phenomena solely to Baywatch would probably be unfair.


Television has absolutely no effect on people's perception of reality and their subsequent actions. If there was some effect on the population, wouldn't companies spend millions of dollars to display their products in appealing situations on TV?



This study seems interesting but it also seems to have many problems with its main conclusion. During the same period the urban population grew much more than the rural. Also, Brazilian society which used to be much more conservative, with few women working outside the home, changed a lot as today 50% of the working force in the major cities is formed by women.
So, the study looks funny, but clearly lacks scientific rigor.


I call shennanigans something doesn't smell right. Likely they messed up their numbers, their was probably another factor coinciding with the showing of the Soaps.

Lourenço (Brazil)

There is one more thing to it besides the "adapting to the reality shown on TV". Whenever the wifes were watching soap operas, they were not making babies... And that is prime time for baby-making as well...


Correlation is not causality.

There is a more probable explanation. Average income raised and as a consequence:
_Mortality among children lowered and classical demographic transition occur.
_People could buy a TV and watch soap opera.

Gabriel C.A. Campos

I find it funny how american journalists attempt to interpret brazilian facts through complete no-sence arguments. It is not the first time the NYT publishes a story about brazil and our society mentioning weird comparative metaphorical language, i remember a preety rediculous one a long time ago where the NYT mentioned the price of a Big Mac to say that our economy was shrinking. From 1960 through 2000 there was an extremely strong urbanization in brazil, as families left the country because of its fast machanization and searched for jobs in industries in the major cities like Sao Paulo, Rio and Belo Horizonte. The reason , as in any other normal country, is due to the fact that in a rural family more members are needed to cultivate the land, as in a urban family the children are more likely to study then work because of legislation and incentives. Stop comparing ou phenomenons to stupid rediculous things, it makes you look as if you think we're primitive.



What was the trend for child mortality rates before and during that period? Also, was there some migration from farming during that period?


I remember working in the Dominican Republic. When one of my colleagues was talking about his wife being pregnant for the fifth time, several others informed if they didn't own a television.

Daniel Doro Ferrante

There's a major caveat in this whole piece: Brazilian soaps are absolutely *nothing* like american ones; /ditto/ for mexican ones as well.

So, when discussing them, one must keep this in mind not to get lured by some of the stereotypes out there...


"The study found that wherever the soaps aired, the fertility for women dropped significantly, as they adapted to the **reality** they saw on television."

Calling soap operas "reality" is a stretch by any definition of the word.

Miss Middle of Manchester


Eastenders and Coronation Street aren't realistic?

I'd say they're far too realistic.

But maybe Brazilian soaps are different. The article does mention that they feature middle class families rather than working class families.


The theory is consistent. Soap Operas influence low/mid classes more than anything. Most of brazilians do not read anything, so the only thing they discuss is soap operas, and Big Brother...


I wonder what the airing of Joanie loves Chachi on Korean TV did to the fertility rate there

dan p

Thailand (and to a lesser extent some other Southeast Asian countries) experienced dramatic decreases in fertility because of strong, government-sponsored contraception/education programs.

This paper said the government sponsored nothing and that contraceptive advertising was even illegal for a period of time.

Yet I have a hard time believing that TV, and soap operas in particular, influenced fertility so dramatically (if at all).

Because these women had the free time and the television (which is probably indicative of wealth), isn't possible that the drop in fertility is related simply to development like it is in the rest of the world?

Philipe M.

There is an old joke in Brazil that goes like this:

- 7 children! How could our grandparents have such a big famiy?

- Simple: they didn't have a television...