Brazil's Spicy Reality TV War Gets More Revealing: Dom Phillips

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On Jan. 10, the reality show "Big Brother Brasil" kicked off its 12th season on the Globo network. The show -- part of the worldwide TV franchise in which contestants are confined to a house, filmed 24 hours a day and voted out (and sometimes back in) by the public -- dominates Internet and Twitter chat. It has everything Brazil likes: sex, gossip, flirting, glamour, socializing, sex and showing off.

But this year, "Big Brother" has competition. "Rich Women," which began airing a week before on the rival Band network, follows five rich, glamorous women through their day-to-day lives of staggering luxury.

Both shows have provoked no shortage of furious reaction in the media and online -- perhaps because they illustrate Brazil's growing social polarization so starkly.

"Rich Women," quite simply, is the upper class behaving badly. Socialite Val Marchiori goes out to buy a new private plane for 30 million reais. Interior designer Brunete Fraccaroli hires a photographer and studio to take pictures of her and her favorite Barbie doll. Money is spent, champagne glugged -- and Brazil is both enthralled and appalled.

According to the Folha de Sao Paulo, the day after the show debuted it was among the three most-discussed events on Twitter in Brazil. Much of the conversation was savage. As the journalist and former professor Marco Antonio Araujo said on his blog, O Provocador:

If you are already terrified by the arrival of another Big Brother, you should know that the circus of horrors of Brazilian television literally reached the limit of exposure of human misery: Rich Women, from Band TV. It's made for strong stomachs. I survived 30 minutes into the show, before beginning to feel revulsion, the anxiety that precedes vomiting.

"It would be comical, if it weren't tragic," was the headline of a review by actor and columnist Renato Kramer in Folha de Sao Paulo. Kramer quoted jeweler Lydia Sayeg, one of the show's characters:

The rich have to spend. If the rich don't spend, the money doesn't circulate, and if the money doesn't go round, the less fortunate ones don't earn … I rented a Ferrari for my husband to go for a ride, is this extravagance? I don't know, but this is our day-to-day lives.

Kramer took umbrage:

What people do with their money is their right and only theirs. No one else has anything to do with it. As long as they don't face their antics on national television. Then yes, people are going to think they have the right to judge. And they will remember the social inequality, etc … What could have been entertaining ended up seeming a bit arrogant.

A significant number of the "elite," as Brazil's upper classes call themselves, live much like this. But shouting about it is considered declasse. Or worse. As academic Francisco Fernandes Ladeira pointed out for a column in the Observatorio da Imprensa:

While the average Brazilian dreams of quality public transportation so that he can go from home to the workplace with a minimum of comfort, Val's main concern is to buy a new airplane … To show on a national network a program marked by squandering, futility and ostentation is, in the very least, an affront to the millions of poor and famished Brazilians.

"Big Brother," by contrast, is seen as the program of "Class C," Brazil’s new and booming lower-middle class. The show's audience remains much bigger than that for "Rich Women," and columnists and bloggers are generally kinder to it. They mostly gossip about the good-looking and well-toned housemates, who (except for a little whining, partying and sex) are well-behaved, like most Globo stars.

The show also enables a peculiar kind of rags-to-riches advancement. The most beautiful girl contestants usually end up on the cover of Playboy. A few lucky ones then go on to build lucrative careers in television and advertising, such as actress Grazi Massafera and television presenter Sabrina Sato. Last year's winner, Maria Melilo, has already done Playboy and has reportedly been offered a contract by Globo. The rest fade back into obscurity.

But "Big Brother" also sees its share of criticism. Last year a cordel -- a lengthy traditional Brazilian folk-poem -- began circulating on the Internet. Written by Antonio Barreto, and entitled "Big Brother Brasil -- An Imbecilic Program," it attacked the show in verse. On Jan. 8, it was published on the blog of journalist Luis Nassif:

"It's been a long time since I saw/A program so tasteless/Produced by Globo/Looking for audience and money/That besides alienating/Will certainly shrink/The minds of Brazilians," runs one of its many caustic verses. In Portuguese, it rhymes nicely.

Although the smaller Band network can't compete with the omnipresent might of Globo, the audience ratings for "Big Brother" have been declining, and the battle of the reality shows is becoming something of a reality show itself. Jose Brasil de Oliveira, known as Boninho, is the director of "Big Brother Brasil." His flamboyant ex-wife, the socialite and lawyer Narcisa Tamborindeguy, is one of the five characters in "Rich Women." On Jan. 6 she appeared on the afternoon chat show "Agora e Tarde" to plug the book she's launching. She was asked which reality show was the best -- her own, or that of her ex-husband?

Tamborindeguy chose "Rich Women," and delivered the kind of acid put-down Brazilian women excel in. "It's a thousand times better," she said, smiling dangerously. "Just having my participation is enough to undercut him."

On Jan. 8, Pedro Bial, the host of "Big Brother," came under attack on the late-night show Altas Horas. Bial was asked what kind of television programs he watched. He replied: "I like to watch bad things on television, the worst programs. That's where I learn most."

Sitting next to him was Jose de Oliveira Sobrinho, known as Boni, a veteran director and businessman who happens to be the father of Boninho, the "Big Brother" director. He quipped: "So you want to say that you watch `Big Brother'?"

Bial laughed and laughed.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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