Genre grappling with weak ratings

RIO DE JANEIRO — Is the gloss coming off telenovelas, the perennial primetime favorites that could be relied upon to pump Brazil’s free-to-air webs?Recent viewing data shows that audiences are falling, leading some analysts and industry execs to prophesize the end of the genre’s dominance as competition from the Internet and pay TV lures viewers away. Others blame saturation of the format.

Studies from local research firm Ibope show a decrease in eyeballs for TV Globo’s telenovelas. The net is a distant audience leader here and produces and airs four in primetime Monday through Saturday.

The most dramatic fall is in TV Globo’s 6 p.m. slot, currently occupied by “Negocio da China,” which has declined to 40% this year from a 56% average in 2006 when ??? was on air.

Even TV Globo’s 10 p.m. slot, now featuring “A Favorita,” the country’s most-watched TV program with an aud share of 60%, is down from the 69% notched up in 2006.

The situation has become so dire that No. 4 net TV Bandeirantes recently shut down its telenovela production division and did not renew the temporary work contract of some 200 employees. Net has vowed to resume production next year.

The rapid expansion of competing media is probably the main culprit in telenovelas’ rating decline. With incomes rising, many Brazilians can finally afford pay TV — some 5.4 million homes had subscriptions in July, up 13% from March 2007, according to sector association ABTA. And the number of Internet users has soared to 23.7 million in July from 11.6 million in July 2004, according to Ibope/NetRatings.

However, webheads believe it’s a cyclical decrease.”This year’s telenovela audience should not be compared with the audiences in 2006 or 2004 that were exceptional years,” TV Globo’s spokeswoman told Variety. “Audiences sharply fluctuate year by year.”

She pointed out that “A Favorita’s” 60% share compared well with the 41% share the 10 p.m. telenovela slot had in 1999.

No. 2 net TV Record is also bullish on telenovelas, says communications manager Ricardo Frota.

The net is investing 200 million reals ($100 million) to expand its production center Recnov in Rio. This will allow TV Record, which already makes and airs two telenovelas, to open a third telenovela slot.

But it’s going to fill the slot with a tried-and trusted format — a remake of Colombia’s worldwide phenom “Betty la fea,” due to air in mid 2009. It will be co-produced in Rio with Mexican giant Televisa, as part of a recently inked five-year deal.

Miriam Shirley, media director of the Rio division of pub agency Ogilvy & Mather, believes the truth about telenovelas may be somewhere in between.

“Yes, there is a falling trend. But the ratings will eventually stabilize,” she says. “Telenovelas will no longer be as important as they once were, but they will continue to present outstanding audiences.”

Shirley adds the expected economic slowdown here next year may be an opportunity for broadcasters.

“In a crisis, Brazilians traditionally cut pay TV subscriptions. We may also see people cutting broadband subscriptions and turning back to dialup connections,” she says. “In the meantime, the good old telenovela will be available on free TV.”

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