Scientific research in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Brazil suggest that media, especially soap operas known as novelas, can trigger changes in women’s expectations about life. Data suggests that women watching novelas have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility, consistent with stopping behavior.

Nowhere this effect is better documented than in Brazil. In the sixties, average Brazilian families consisted of 6.3 children. By 2000, this had diminished to 2.3, and nowadays it is 1.9. What has happened? With every country which birthrate has dropped, there are many factors at play. The broadcasting of novelas seems to be one of these factors.

Rede Globo, Brazil’s prime broadcaster of novelas, started airing to the nation in the 1960s. Their arrival came along with falling birth rates in rural areas where such programmes never existed before. Brazil is a country where novelas portray families that are much smaller than in reality. In the 115 novelas of Globo from 1965 to 1999, more than 90% of young female characters had one child or less, while 72% were childless. Off course there were many other variables at play. But after correcting for programming content, demographics and timing of the show in specific markets, evidence shows that drops in fertility rates were largest in the years novelas were aired, and therefore may have affected women’s decisions about children.

Novelas affect individual choices. Women’s rising expectations about their lives, easy access to birth control, rapid urbanization and economic growth all accompanied this shift. The change and rise in women’s expectations, and their connection with novelas, is fascinating. 

There cannot be drawn definitive conclusions about novelas and birth rates. The mechanism behind the phenomenon is still not fully explained, and the many confounding factors are hard to eliminate.

And television is not a cure-all for social ills, as developed countries already well know. The modern lifestyles portrayed in soaps can do damage as well. All in all, whether governments should ever start encouraging more TV watching isn’t quite so clear.