Thursday, 13 May 2010

Roberto Marinho 1904-2003

Legend has it that the Brazilian billionaire Roberto Marinho once decided against purchasing a tortoise, on learning that it would only live for 100 years or so: its death would upset him. Marinho himself died on 6 August, four months short of his 99th birthday, prompting a period of official mourning in a country where his many critics saw him as a homegrown Citizen Kane.
He lived twice as long as his father, Irineu, from whom he inherited in 1925 a newly-founded evening paper that he built into one of the world’s biggest media empires. The only form of immortality Marinho achieved was the honorary form traditionally attaching to membership of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. That accolade, won in 1993, owed not so much to his talents as a journalist – the word by which he insisted on defining himself – as to his status among the richest, most politically astute, influential and ruthless businessmen in Latin America.
Marinho was born in Rio de Janeiro on 3 December 1904, the eldest in a family of five, of mixed Portuguese and Italian descent. He worshipped his journalist father, a co-founder in 1911 of the Rio evening paper A Noite, who sold his stake to launch a rival under the title O Globo. Just three weeks into the new venture, Irineu suffered a fatal heart attack.
The 20-year-old Roberto, though already a cub reporter, was more accomplished as a sportsman (boxing, sub-aqua fishing and equestrianism). For the first five years, he left his inheritance under the management of one of his father’s old colleagues. Meanwhile he learned the ropes, working 15-hour days as Irineu had done, before assuming the editorship in 1931.
Marinho wasted no time in investing in new presses. It became a hallmark of his tenure to keep pace with technological advance. He also steered the paper editorially towards market leadership, cultivating an image of balance and gravitas. In 1954 he moved O Globo into a purpose-built press centre on a Rio street named after his father, the Rua Irineu Marinho. Switching O Globo from the evening to the morning newsstands in the 1960s was a further spur to growth. The press side of the business recently launched another successful Rio daily, Extra, and acquired the Diário de São Paulo in Brazil’s biggest city; it also owns the weekly magazine, Época.
By the 1940s, as radio became the main news medium for Brazilians, Marinho was in a position to exploit his newspaper brand as a seal of quality for his move into broadcasting. Radio Globo went on air in 1944, winning audiences with live football reports and drama serials.
Industrialisation and the consequent surge in consumer culture brought the advent of the television age – and an explosion of advertising. Marinho was not to be left behind. He obtained his first TV broadcasting licence in 1957 but it was seven years before TV Globo was on the air. It developed a novel sales regime to maximise advertising revenues and invested in programme with, by local standards, high production values. Its innovative soap operas took the Brazilian cinema genre of kitsch melodrama, known as chanchada, to new heights.
Building a network of affiliates made TV Globo effectively the country’s first provider of nationwide news coverage. Its main news bulletin, Jornal Nacional, soon overtook its rivals as the current affairs programme of record. Marinho said, with reason, that his network’s news coverage gave Brazil “a whole new way of seeing the world”: it was his way.
Quantifying Marinho’s empire in comparative terms is not an exact science, given exchange rate fluctuations and the fact that its shares are unlisted. Commonly quoted estimates of his fortune range from $1,000m to $2,000m, while turnover of the group’s 100-plus companies is put between $5,700m and $6,400m. TV Globo is not only South America’s biggest network, the only one covering all of Brazil’s vast territory, but the fourth or fifth biggest in the world and captures between 60 and 75 per cent of advertising revenue on its patch. The Marinho family directly owns 32 of the stations affiliated to its TV Globo network, and 15 radio stations. It has around half of the TV audience share. Add in the group’s publishing and recording interests, cable and broadband services, and the Citizen Kane analogy begins to look like an understatement.
It is harder still to put a value on the social and political clout that such an empire commands: how could this figure on, say, Berlusconi’s balance sheet? For sixty years, Roberto Marinho has been able to make or break presidents and ministers, wielding influence under both civilian and military regimes and sometimes demonstrating flexibility in the law where his own interests were affected. He has been a daily presence in the lives of most of the world’s fifth-largest population.
Marinho has not hesitated to use his media power for political ends. In the early 1930s he supported the southern populist politician Getúlio Vargas, turning against him in 1937 when Vargas proclaimed a dictatorship. When he prepared to launch TV Globo in 1962, Marinho signed a joint venture deal with the US group Time-Life, despite a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of domestic broadcasters. Competitors complained, but Marinho called in favours from the new military ruler Castelo Branco, whose coup he had backed, and an exception was duly made. Brazil went through a series of military dictatorships from the mid-1960s and Marinho was never far from their inner circles. It has been said that when Castelo Branco’s cabinet demanded a purge on left-wingers in the media, Marinho simply rebuffed it, insisting: “My communists do as I say.”
When democracy, Brazilian-style, was restored, a close friend of Marinho became communications minister under President Tancredo Neves and stayed on under his successor, José Sarney. Politicians who happened to have private business interests in broadcasting would find it to their advantage to be nice to TV Globo if their firms wanted to do deals with the giant network. Marinho’s finger was on the pulse: he might ring the network newsroom at any hour to find out what the latest rumours were or, just as likely, to tip off his editors about what he had just gleaned in conversation with the head of state.
When the late Simon Hartog made his 1993 Channel Four documentary Brazil: Beyond Citizen Kane, Marinho’s lawyers moved hell and high water to get it banned in Brazil. But a group of dissident parliamentarians arranged a screening in Congress and bootleg videos are still widely circulated. Although the current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, comes from the left of the Brazilian spectrum, he felt obliged to declare three days of official mourning on the mogul’s death and pay tribute to “a man who believed in Brazil all his life… a man who came into the world to serve.”
Widely known by the honorific “Doctor Roberto”, Marinho’s entrepreneurial passions did not eclipse the cultured side of his character. His mind concentrated, no doubt, by his father’s premature demise, Marinho jealously guarded his own physical fitness and led a relatively austere personal life. A non-smoker, he allowed himself just an occasional glass of wine. He kept up his sporting activities to an advanced age, swimming, diving and riding: he was a highly skilled horseman. He remained mentally alert, taking an active part in Globo group decision-making and spending most afternoons at the head office. An autobiography was reportedly in preparation.
He was an enthusiastic buyer of modern art, amassing a formidable collection in which Chagall and Léger rub shoulders with most of Brazil’s leading painters. In the 1970s, he set up a foundation bearing his name, to promote Brazil’s artistic heritage. His TV Futura channel was created with an explicitly educational mission and his fortune funded major exhibitions and restoration projects. Opera and art-house cinema also fascinated him. He was flattered to be elected, in 1993, as one of the elite 40 members of the Academia Brasileira de Letras. But as a bona fide Brazilian, Marinho was also a football fanatic, religiously following the Flamengo club.
Marinho suffered a thrombosis at his mansion in Cosme Velho, beneath Rio’s towering statue of Christ the Redeemer, and died during emergency surgery. He is survived by his wife, Lily de Carvalho, a one-time Miss France whom he married in his 80th year after divorcing his second spouse, Ruth Albuquerque. He was already in his forties at the time of his first marriage to Stella Goulart, mother of his four sons. The second eldest, Paulo Roberto, was killed in a New Year’s Eve car crash in 1969.
Marinho ended prolonged speculation about his succession by dividing majority ownership of the unquoted group between the surviving sons, Roberto Irineu, João Roberto and José (you guessed it) Roberto, with shares also assigned among nine grandchildren and a couple of great-grandchildren. The sons have long been closely involved in the Globo group’s strategic management. Consultants and professional managers were hired to streamline the business and assure the dynasty’s future at the apex of the Brazilian mass media.
The patriarch, who took charge of O Globo ten years before Orson Welles made his masterpiece, was determined to leave his personal Xanadu in the hands of people with his revered father’s surname.
  • João Roberto Marinho, publisher; born 3 December 1904; died 6 August 2003

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