Soaps and Storytelling

Think selling refrigerators to Eskimos … and then think of my assignment this week: presenting one of the world’s largest and slickest storytelling organisations with fresh ways to view their own blockbuster products.

I’d been invited to Rio de Janeiro to give a talk at Projac, the main production centre for TV Globo, Brazil’s leading media organisation – and the world’s largest producer of telenovelas or TV soap operas. Globo has been producing soaps since the early 70s and they have been successfully exported around the world.

Arguably, Brazil and its prevailing zeitgeist are defined by the current blockbuster soap. So Globo, after some years in the doldrums, has just hit a ratings peak with Fina Estampa, a piece about Pereirão, a tough working (and working-class) mother  — played by Lilia Cabral —  not afraid to show her masculine side, who fights her way up from the lower ranks with dignity and grace. In a nation now experiencing the dramatic and satisfying rise to economic prominence and social significance of the C/D socio-economic group, Globo’s TV storytelling was right on the money, regularly hitting 40 million-plus audiences.

So when I finally battled through the traffic to reach Jacarepaguá and Globo’s  sprawling ‘tropical Cinecitta’ style production lot where half a dozen novelas are in simultaneous production of different sound stages, what could I possibly have to tell the folks from the company’s innovation think-tank, known as I9?  Globo’s telenovela writers enjoy rockstar status and regularly teach university-level script classes to would-be authors. The audience had that look of “show me something I don’t already know.”

I made a bet that although Globo was a fantastic creator and producer of stories, there might not be quite so much method behind the process of story selection. After all, ensuring critical and ratings success is a random business. You have to throw stuff at the wall of public opinion to see what sticks. There’s a lot of trust in the author.

The only way to find out if a story will really work is to commission and produce a pilot, screen it for focus groups, invite critics, try and start a viral buzz on social media. By this stage a major financial commitment has been made in the story – but you still don’t know if the story will “pegar na veia do publico” – a telling reference to mainline drug injection that journalists use to describe the popular effect of successful dramas.

The arrival of internet, multiple cable channels, and new TV stations has broken some of the old “one party state” ubiquity that Globo enjoyed in the 70’s, 80s and early 90s, when its novelas were a defining national passion. In fact the success of Fina Estampa is being seen as a much-needed fightback after some years in the ratings doldrums.

So my presentation focused not on how to tell a story (Globo is already way, way ahead on that), but on how to classify stories, how to analyse the way story types affect our moods – and how to use stories to affect behaviour and shape likely outcomes. I wanted to intrigue them with the notion that you could have a well-informed idea — even before the author began his scriptwriting, what kind of story would likely succeed. All you need is an interpretative matrix and a system that allows you to overlay known or predicted public demand, with certain story types.

I presented the three-dimensional matrix storytelling that I’d previously shown in a TED talk, and had shared with the folks from EACD, the European Association of Communications Directors. With literally hundreds of telenovelas to choose from, I simply switched my case studies so that every “real world” event or story type, was matched by a “novela world” happening.

Readers of this blog over recent months will have seen the model taking shape through my posts on the Seven Archetypal Stories (The vertical Story Axis), the Four Story Moods (the horizontal Narrative Axis) and — this one still to come, folks – the five behavioural effects of story (the diagonal Happen Axis).

This meta-view worked a treat! The Globo folks loved the way their productions could be inserted into an interpretative matrix that blended journalistic fact with soap-opera,  European politics with local corruption-busting, and which compared NATO’s increasingly desperate attempts to impose peace in Afghanistan with their own drug wars in Rio’s favelas. It’s an uncanny coincidence that Globo was already in production with Brado Retumbante, a farce about Brasilia’s political corruption and graft, in the months  before and during unfolding political scandals that  toppled no fewer than six of president Dilma’s ministers last year.

After all, Brazil’s recent history veers crazily between “too bizarre to make up” facts on the political stage that often resembles a sound stage at Projac. Former president Lula’s own humble beginnings as a metalworker and labour convener were profiled in a feature film (Lula – o filho do Brasil). And the back-story of current president Dilma Rousseff is even better: she was a gun-toting leftist urban guerrilla in the days of military dictatorship. She beat cancer and other hardships to win the presidency, inheriting Lula’s mantle and becoming one of the world’s five most admired women.

The great vindication for me was that the three dimensional storytelling model that I have been developing over the past year is robust, adaptable – and comprehensive. It works in a corporate environment. And it works as a teaching tool. It works in Rio, in London, across Europe. You can’t easily satisfy the producers and professional storytellers at Globo. But I think I gave them something to think about.

©2012 Richard House


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