COVID massively increased subscriptions to TV streaming services. Netflix now has 222m subscribers globally. The average US household has 4.4 subscriptions. COVID “lockdowns” meant we all spent more time at home watching TV. The ultimate indulgence is to open a box set and watch all the episodes in one sitting. Truly binge viewing? Not really when compared to a group of economics researchers in Brazil. They watched 110 series!
Explaining Brazilian Fertility
In 1960 the average female would have 6.3 children. This had fallen to 2.3 by 2000. It is 1.76 today and dropped below the replacement rate around 2004. The team wanted to understand the drivers of the decline from 1960 to 2000. They used the usual predictors: female education, availability of contraception and prosperity.
It was clear that their models were not explaining everything. Fertility did not drop consistently over time. There was also a lot of variability by geography. Cities and states started to decline at different times.
National television started in the middle of the sixties. Television ownership in 1991 had risen to 91%. Education levels in Brazil were generally lower than its neighbours. Even as television coverage passed ninety percent, over 50% of 15 year olds only had the lowest literacy levels. 39% of the adult population had four or less years of schooling. This rose to 73% in rural areas. They wondered whether messages were reaching people more through TV than the classroom.
Soap Operas in Brazil.
The vast majority of people in Brazil watch the soap operas or novellas as they are called. At 6pm there are historical stories and these have the lowest rating. At 7pm are the comedy novellas. Finally at 8pm are the most popular soap operas that deal with social issues. The Rede Globo channel has a virtual monopoly on novellas. It was founded in 1965. Its coverage of the population grew as it rolled out transmission masts around the country. Its coverage in 1980 had grown to 45%. By 1991 it had reached 92%. It is now the fourth largest television station in the world after the three major US channels.
Soap Operas and Fertility
What the researchers realized was that the unexplained drops in fertility corresponded to the roll out of the Globo channel. They could see the drops even in a small metropolitan area covered by a single new mast. They could see that the declines were not happening before the arrival of Globo. Fertility drops instead one year after transmission starts. Fertility is measured by births not pregnancies This was exactly the expected pattern.
To understand why this might be happening they had to look at the content of the novellas. They chose only the 7pm and 8pm shows but still had to watch 110 different series! They spanned the period 1965 to 1999. They watched all episodes to understand the “message” coming from the TV. They were particularly interested in the role of women.
What they found was a novella world a million miles away from the lives of most of the viewers. Of all the lead female characters 62% had no children. 20% had only one child. For characters portrayed as younger than 50, 71% had no children. Even amongst married characters 45% had no children and 30% had only a single child. This was not related to when the novella was made. Early Novellas were broadcast when the average fertility was 6.3. These were the ones with even more childless female leads.
Was it these role models influencing fertility or was it simply the TV itself? They looked at the naming pattern for children by geography. They looked at the top 20 most popular names in each area. Many names in the novellas are idiosyncratic. They found a 33% match between the characters and the children’ s names in areas where Globo broadcast. This dropped to 8% in areas where it was not transmitted. People were certainly watching the novellas.
Further evidence came from the details of the characters. The impact on fertility was higher when the age of the woman matched the age of the novella character. Fertility amongst the 15-24 age group in Brazil did not change in the period. Few lead characters were in this age band. The effect is strong for the 25-34 age group and strongest for the 35-44 age group. Lower socio economic age groups appeared to be influenced more. The novellas portrayed aspirational middle class or upper middle class homes.
Why were the Worlds in the Novellas so Different to Reality?
Military dictatorship in Brazil started on April 1st 1964. It lasted for 21 years. Throughout the development of the novella, Brazil was under military censorship. The novellas attracted very high calibre script writers. Many were already important writers looking for a vehicle for their anti- government feelings. The plots were designed to undermine. Over half of the married women characters were having affairs. There is widespread female emancipation at work. The novellas portray women pursuing their own pleasure and love. They are anti-machismo. There is a strong emphasis across all characters on individualism. Homosexuality is acceptable and everyone criticizes religion and traditional values.
Time has moved on in Brazil. Education levels are much higher especially amongst women. Fertility levels are comparable to the rest of the World. What the novellas do show is that culture can be one driver of fertility decline. What is clear is that the initial stages of decline come with the drop in child mortality. It does not usually cause a decline below replacement level. What comes next seems to be a mixture of economics, medicine and culture.
The cost of raising a child grows. This has a lot to do with the need for extended education. Increased cost lowers fertility. The value of a child as a “free farm worker” or guarantee of support in old age has dropped. State pension schemes reduce some of the need. At the same time, the opportunity cost has risen dramatically. Women want to work. Their income is now “hard wired” into the lifestyle of the ”family”. There is more downward pressure on fertility. The increased availability of modern contraception increases it yet further.
On top of all that is culture. Consumerism drives the need for two salaries. Few people actually “drop out” of Society. Most stay and measure themselves against it. Individualism and female emancipation are the new norm. People need scripts for how to live their lives. Those scripts come from the world around them. They come from the stereotypes portrayed in the media. It seems they can influence even things as profound as fertility.
If I look at the television content on offer today I wonder what stereotype it is portraying for us to follow? I appear to be able to watch a murder 24 hours of every day. The world is full of serial killers, terrorists and police with psychological problems. Even soap operas have become “darker”.