Do Soap Operas Boost Womens Rights? Economist Says Yes A pervasive technology is reshaping the world. And it's not Facebook, or Twitter, or anything else on the Web — it's television, says economist Charles Kenny. From Brazil to India, commercial television makes life better and helps strengthen civil rights, Kenny says.
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Soap Operas Boost Rights, Global Economist Says

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Soap Operas Boost Rights, Global Economist Says

Soap Operas Boost Rights, Global Economist Says

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Outside the United States, the next cool thing is television. Thats the argument of Charles Kenny, an economist at the World Bank. In Foreign Policy magazine he writes of the soap operas and other programs that reach the developing world. And Mr. Kenney says TV is changing the developing world even more than the Internet. TV simply reaches more people.

If I think of television in the United States, I think of declining audiences, declining ratings and people denouncing the cultural damage that it does. You think of television in terms of what its doing around the world.

Mr. CHARLES KENNY (Author): Yeah. And around the world it's spreading very fast, and its not just sort of the number of TV's that are spreading. There are about one television for every four people on the planet nowadays. It's the choice that people have when they're watching has shot through the roof and that's partly because of technologies like satellites and cable. One-half of Indian households have a TV; of those households, two-thirds have access to cable or satellite.

INSKEEP: So half of India has a television and a lot of them have cable or satellite connections, lots of choices. We're talking about hundreds of millions of people.

Mr. KENNY: Hundreds of millions of people and it's a much more communal experience watching TV in the developing world. Quite often their neighbors are over or their friends are over watching TV too, so the reach is even larger than that.

INSKEEP: What are some of the television programs that are massively popular around the world?

Mr. KENNY: I have to admit that "Baywatch" is the most popular program we think ever. Some of the episodes have been watched by a billion people. And it does have - one can argue - some value. I mean a lot of the moral messages in "Baywatch" are actually quite positive. Do the right thing is a fairly constant endpoint for a "Baywatch" show, so even these shows that normally we think of as just being cotton candy for the mind actually can have quite powerful positive influence on people's lives.

INSKEEP: We were sitting around the office here speculating on why "Desperate Housewives" might be one of the most popular programs in the world right now.

Mr. KENNY: Indeed it is. I think "Desperate Housewives" and "House" are two very popular programs. The most important thing is it's entertainment. They enjoy it. Why should we be upset by that? But also, even some of these soaps, we're seeing quite a large impact. There are cases in both Brazil and India where quite careful research has been done and it suggests that people watching soaps, it's really changing the way they live their lives, especially for women.

INSKEEP: And why is it that television has that effect on people?

Mr. KENNY: Well, to take the example of Brazil, Rede Globo is the big TV station in Brazil. It broadcasts a lot of local soaps and most of what people are watching in the developing world is not "Baywatch" and "House," for all their popularity. It's locally made programming and a lot of that is soap operas. On the soap operas in Brazil, the vast majority of women have no children or one child.

When Rede Glovo started broadcasting in Brazil, the average Brazilian woman had about six children. They start watching these shows and they see these women with very few children, much more independence within the household, and it seems to have an effect on the way they live their lives.

One of the ways you can tell that is that the names of the women characters on the TV programs start to become very popular names to name your kids. But also we actually saw, for example, the divorce rate go up. Now, I'm not saying that's a pure good, but it does suggests something about the power relations between men and women within the household.

INSKEEP: Youre talking about a heavily Catholic country here and talking about smaller family sizes and higher divorce rates. Has there been a backlash?

Mr. KENNY: Not one that weve seen aimed at Rede Globo; however, the general feeling that, you know, one gets in the United States is the same the world over, that weve seen some people say, you know, this is culturally very damaging. There have been fatwas against watching TV in India, for example.

INSKEEP: You also write about a Muslim cleric who said it was okay to kill television executives.

Mr. KENNY: Yes. I'm glad to say that's an extreme example and we haven't seen terribly much of that. This is in Saudi Arabia and people are worried that TV can be a force for cultural change. I would just argue that some cultural change is good cultural change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Are authoritarian governments losing control of the airways?

Mr. KENNY: I think you have to say that to some extent, but the fact is that it's very hard nowadays to stop people who really want to getting access to satellite TV. I worked in Kabul for a while and one of the things you saw there were homemade satellite dishes. You can get a satellite signal without the permission of government. And so it means that people in, even in quite authoritarian regimes can get access to news from outside sources, and that can really change the power relations between governments and individuals.

INSKEEP: Charles Kenny of the World Bank is author of "Revolution In A Box" in Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks very much.

Mr. KENNY: Thank you.

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