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[rio de janeiro] When Brazil's 37 million TV homes flick on their sets, chances are they are watching Rede Globo, the world's fourth-largest TV network.

Owned by 93-year-old Roberto Marinho and his three sons -- all named Roberto -- powerful Rede Globo captures 55% of Brazil's prime-time audience and up to 70% of TV ad revenue.

The four top-rated TV shows in Brazil are Globo's flashy hourlong soap operas, called novelas, at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. nightly, and Globo's national evening news at 8 p.m. -- all from the network's own studios. Globo also produces 90% of its programming.


This year, Globo's overall audience share has dipped, to an average 48% from 52% last year, as cable and satellite TV grows quickly from a tiny base.

"People click through 100 channels and go back to Globo," said Eduardo Fischer, president of Sao Paulo agency FischerAmerica.

But Globo isn't taking any chances. It's already the biggest player in the new venues of cable and satellite, and has 2.5 million of Brazil's 3.7 million pay TV subscribers. Globo has told analysts pay TV will have 8.5 million subscribers in Brazil by the year 2000, 5.5 million of them hooked up to Globosat or Globonet.

Another threat comes from rival national networks, which are mining a new programming vein of "Jerry Springer"-like TV shows.

The biggest hit is rodentlike "Ratinho" ("Little Rat"), a man armed with a little rat puppet and a truncheon. The show racks up prime-time audience shares of between 17% and 26% by fomenting fights among Ratinho's violence-prone guests while ranting about law and order.

Last month, Brazil's No. 2 network, SBT, bought "Ratinho's" contract from his previous network, TV Record, for a reported $40 million.


Despite competing among themselves, Brazil's media owners are uniting against an outside threat: the feared entry of media buying shops such as Zenith Media Services (jointly owned by Cordiant Communications Group and Saatchi & Saatchi), WPP Group's MindShare and Ammirati Puris Lintas' Initiative Media (part of Interpublic Group of Cos.).

Globo and an informal club of 20 leading media owners like to attribute almost demonic powers to these large, outside media buying groups and are finalizing a canny plot to outmaneuver them in the country.

"If we can stop them from coming to Brazil, we will," said Octavio Florisbal, commercial superintendent of Rede Globo. "We know it's hard, because it's an international trend. [But] we're working to close the door."


The owners' plan is, as part of a new self-regulatory commission system soon to be formalized, to include clauses prohibiting the payment of agency commissions or discounts to any company other than full-service ad agencies. The nation's ad agencies are working with the media on the proposal.

The document with the new rules may be signed as early as October and become enforceable next year, Mr. Florisbal said.

"[Media buying shops] steal clients from small and medium agencies," Mr. Florisbal said. "And once media owners become weak and dependent on centralized media buyers, editorial becomes vulnerable."


Although media buying groups are vilified by almost everyone in Brazil, few question the huge economic and political power wielded by Globo. Five other national networks survive precariously on a sliver of advertising not controlled by Globo, and it's difficult to imagine a Brazilian president being elected without Globo's blessing.

Still, despite 12 years of democracy, Brazilians remember that Globo thrived under two earlier decades of military dictatorship.

"Globo's good because of quality programming and low cost per thousand," said a media director at a Brazilian ad agency. "But it's bad from a social perspective to have so much power. Globo supported the dictatorship."

At this point, Globo is a blue-chip stock in an emerging market that increasingly is frightening investors. The Marinho family -- patriarch Roberto and his sons, Roberto Irineu, 50; Joao Roberto, 45; and Jose Roberto, 42 -- preside over a sprawling $5.4 billion organization, comprising TV, overseas programming sales, a newspaper and magazines, radio, cellular phone licenses and telecommunications equipment.


Ad spending growth, however -- forecast at a below average 5% to 7% rate this year by Mr. Florisbal -- is slowing.

"Yes, [holding company] Globopar will be negatively affected by the current market environment and recession," said Leigh M. Talbot, Boston-based VP and fixed income analyst at BancBoston Robertson Stephens. "But no, they won't go away.

"Ad revenues will fall in line with the recession, but [Globopar's] industry leading position will work in limiting exposure. It's a survivor and a market leader."

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