There\’s always a chicken-and-egg question about the interrelationship between television and social values. Does the behavior shown in television shows change social values, or does it just reflect changes in social values that have already happened? Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea offer one example in which television does seem to have altered social values in \”Soap Operas and Fertility: Evidence from Brazil.\” The paper appears in the most recent issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics (2012, 4(4): 1–31). The journal isn\’t freely available on-line, but those in academia will often have on-line access through their libraries.
To disentangle the cause and effect of television and social values, the ideal experiment would be to have some random selection areas with television, and other nearby areas without television–and then to compare across areas. While a pure random experiment of this kind is hard to come by, many developing countries saw a dramatic expansion in the availability of television from the 1970s up through the 1990s. Thus, researchers can look at what happened in different areas as television coverage arrived. La Ferrara, Chong, and Duryea start their discussion this way:
\”In the early 1990s, after more than 30 years of expansion of basic schooling, over 50 percent of 15 year olds in Brazil scored at the lowest levels of the literacy portion of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), indicating that they could not perform simple tasks, such as locating basic information within a text. People with 4 or fewer years of schooling accounted for 39 percent of the adult population in the urban areas, and nearly 73 percent in rural areas as measured by the 2000 census. On the other hand, the share of households owning a television set had grown from 8 percent in 1970 to 81 percent in 1991, and remained approximately the same 10 years later. The spectacular growth in television viewership in the face of slow increases in education levels characterizes Brazil as well as many other developing countries. Most importantly, it suggests that a wide range of messages and values, including important ones for development policy, have the potential to reach households through the screen as well as through the classroom. …\”
\”We are interested in the effect of exposure to one of the most pervasive forms of cultural communication in Brazilian society, soap operas or novelas. Historically, the vast majority of the Brazilian population, regardless of social class, has watched the 8 pm novela. In the last decades, one group, Rede Globo, has had a virtual monopoly over the production of Brazilian novelas. Our content analysis of 115 novelas aired by Globo in the two time slots with the highest audience between 1965 and 1999 reveals that 72 percent of the main female characters (age 50 and lower) had no children at all, and 21 percent had only one child. This is in marked contrast with the prevalent fertility rates in Brazilian society over the same period.\”
Fertility rates have been dropping in Brazil in the last few decades, as in many other countries. \”The total fertility rate was 6.3 in 1960, 5.8 in 1970, 4.4 in 1980, 2.9 in 1991, and 2.3 in 2000. It is noteworthy that this decline was not the result of deliberate government policy. In Brazil no official population control policy was enacted by the government and, for a period of time, advertising of contraceptive methods was even illegal. The change therefore originated from a combination of supply factors related to the availability of contraception and lower desired fertility.\” Of course, there is a standard argument among economists and demographers that as a country go through a \”demographic transition,\” as the economy become wealthier and life expectancies increase, fertility rates decline. The estimates in this study suggest that receiving the TV signal can account for about 7 percent of the overall decline in fertility. They write: \”Globo coverage is associated with a decrease in the probability of giving birth of 0.5 percentage points, which is 5 percent of the mean. The magnitude of this effect is comparable to that associated with an increase of 1.6 years in women’s education.\”
Their investigation also turned up a number of supportive connections. For example: \” The (negative) effect of Globo exposure is stronger for households with lower education and wealth, as one would expect given that these households are relatively less likely to get information from written sources or to interact with peers that have small family sizes. the effect of exposure to soap operas in Brazil.\” \”We find that decreases in fertility were stronger in years immediately following novelas that portrayed messages of upward social mobility, consistent with the desire to conform with behavior that leads to positive life outcomes.\” \”Also, we find that the effect of Globo availability in any given year was stronger for women whose age was closer to that of the main female characters portrayed that year.\”
And most striking to me: \”[W]e estimate the probability that the 20 most popular names chosen by parents for their newborns in a given metropolitan area include one or more names of the main characters of novelas aired in the year in which the child was born. This probability is 33 percent if the area where parents lived received the Globo signal and only 8.5 percent if it did not, a statistically
significant difference. Since novela names tend to be very idiosyncratic in Brazil, we take this evidence as suggestive of a strong link between novela content and behavior.\”