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Cultural Exchange: Brazil's 'Big Brother' gets dose of shocking reality

A public vents its fury at the nation's popular reality TV show and media giant Globo over an incident that raises the specter of sexual abuse.

January 29, 2012|By Vincent Bevins, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Felipe Dana / AP )

Reporting From São Paulo, Brazil — — It took Brazil's most important television network two days to take action after social networks exploded in disgust at what may have been one of the most shocking moments in reality television's sordid history. According to some interpretations, a suspected sexual assault was broadcast live from the house of Brazil's "Big Brother" Jan. 15.

Though it was ignored on the following night's show, the country became obsessed by the case, and police are now investigating 31-year-old model Daniel Echaniz, who was suspended from the show and has been forced to hand over his passport to prevent him from fleeing the country.

Public fury is also being aimed at Globo, the powerful media group that dominates popular culture in the world's fifth-largest country and is not used to having its legitimacy so openly questioned. The channel broadcasts "Big Brother" — now in its 12th season and one of the country's most popular shows — but is probably best known for producing Brazil's telenovelas, or soap operas.

Brazil's twitterati took aim at the channel because the show's production team presumably saw the same thing as everyone else who watched the live stream, broadcast 24 hours a day, though the incident wasn't shown on the nightly TV show. A clip widely disseminated online shows Echaniz in bed with 23-year-old Monique Amin after an alcohol-fueled opening party for the show. Seen via night-vision footage, with the two under the covers, it seems Echaniz is having sex with Amin, who appears to be asleep.

Compared with television in the U.S., Brazil often offers more liberal depictions of sex. After one encounter was transmitted on the nightly broadcast of "Big Brother," Globo banned such scenes from the nightly edited version on open cable, but they could be viewed on the live 24-hour channel available to paying viewers.

"If the courts eventually do accept the thesis that there was sexual abuse it wouldn't only be disastrous for the image of Big Brother Brasil," according to Veja, an influential weekly magazine. "Bad taste and vulgarity on reality shows bring in an audience, but the public refuses to swallow every type of abuse," wrote Alessandra Medina and Marcelo Marthe.

In this year's "Big Brother" house, there are fewer beds than there are people, so participants must sleep together.

The channel drew more criticism after some questioned whether Amin might have been pressured to change her story. On the show, she said the two had kissed but she didn't remember having sex with him. "Only if he did it while I was sleeping," she then said. "But if that's the case he'd be a really bad person."

Days later, accompanied by lawyers hired by the channel, she gave police a statement saying they had touched each other under the covers but that no sex had occurred, and everything that did occur was consensual, police said. Authorities have nevertheless acquired tapes, clothing and the bedsheets for analysis.

Small protests have taken place in São Paulo and in Rio, alongside campaigns on Facebook, to organize a boycott of the channel. But for many Brazilians — especially the young, liberals and students — Globo was already a cultural behemoth to be opposed for dumbing down popular discourse and pulling Brazilian politics to the right.

A British film criticizing Globo — for supposedly distorting truth and supporting the military dictatorship, among other things — was seized in 1994 by military police before it could be released widely in the country. The movie, "Beyond Citizen Kane," recently had a showing in São Paulo.

But for the millions of people that tune in to its well-produced dramas, Globo provides high-quality entertainment and, some say, brings together the rich and poor in a country of vast economic inequality.

"The nightly novelas are one of the stronger connections for Brazilians from different levels of society all across the country," says Jorge Grimberg, a trends analyst here. "They usually deal with social issues and often break taboos. In a way, they are a main source of common cultural education in the country."

Organizações Globo, Latin America's largest media conglomerate, also runs several other channels, Rio's main newspaper, O Globo, produces movies and has a string of magazines. "Big Brother" and "Fina Estampa" the current prime-time novela, are by far the country's most popular programs.

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But what surprised the Brazilian public was not only the alleged assault but that the channel seemingly tried to quietly brush it aside. On the broadcast the following night, footage was edited to show the couple having had a relatively normal romantic encounter. It was only the hyper-active Brazilian online community that brought the clip quickly to national attention, surprising the channel, analysts said.

Though the police investigation continues, the show is proceeding — without Echaniz. Major media continue to follow the new dramatic twists and turns within the house. The latest news: One cast member shaved his beard.

Bevins is a special correspondent.

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