RIO DE JANEIRO — Bucking the economic slowdown, local nets TV Record and Sistema Brasileiro de Televisao are laying out huge sums in their fight for talent.

TV Record, which overtook SBT in 2007 to become No. 2 in audience ratings, has lured away SBT’s celebrity host Gugu Liberato for a monthly salary of 3 million reals ($1.5 million).

Liberato fronted highly popular variety shows on SBT for 28 years but he will switch to TV Record in April when his SBT contract ends.

Liberato’s new show will follow the successful formula of his “Domingo legal” (Cool Sunday), with games and music. He will also have a David Letterman-style yakker on TV Record’s pay TV sister net Record News.

SBT struck back by nabbing Roberto Justus, who hosted TV Record’s version of “The Apprentice,” and Eliana, a TV Record celeb for 10 years.

Despite this, TV Record is jubilant.

“Gugu is highly profitable, draws viewers and increases our credibility,” says TV Record’s spokesman. “We’ve got the king. They got pawns.”

The heated competition inflated wages, as nets attempted to hold on to their talent.

The backdrop for such deals is the booming advertising market on free-to-air webs. Between January and April ad spend on the local nets rose 6% to $1.82 billion, compared to the same period last year.

The competition for the audience ranking’s second position, occupied by SBT for more than two decades, is particularly strong.

TV Record, which is backed by the wealthy Universal Church of God’s Kingdom, invested heavily to seize and consolidate its No. 2 spot.

In the first half of this year, TV Globo maintained a comfortable lead against No. 2 TV Record while SBT was No. 3, according to Ibope’s PNT research.