YouTube Rules Brazil's Brave New Media World

How a host of zany vloggers became some of the country’s most influential public figures.

As in most homes populated by teens and tweens, sharing a roof with an exotic cast of screen idols is part of our family deal. Hence my nodding acquaintance with Brazil’s second most-watched video blogger, Felipe Neto, whose cackle and harlequin coiffure can send my 12-year-old -- and just about every other Brazilian her size -- IGNORE INTO a swoon.

Yet when I actually met Neto, I was disarmed. Skinny, tall and quietly focused, he was nothing like the manic prankster I’d come to know online. His mop was a dull mauve, disappointing for the man who’s done for hair dye what Imelda Marcos did for footwear.

What gave his star status away was his crib: a rambling mansion, complete with mini cinema and a pool traversed by a footbridge, in a gated luxury community in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca beach district.

At age 29 and boasting more than 15 million YouTube subscribers, and 600,000 more on his own web app, Neto has added some 7 million subscribers to his YouTube channel since January and nearly 900,000 just in the 30 days to Oct. 25. That subscriber surge -- the fifth biggest globally -- placed him two notches above marquee pop star Ed Sheeran and ahead of all vloggers.

It used to be that only footballers or soap-opera stars were guaranteed to make young Brazilian pulses race. Neto’s rise speaks to a new era that has created a much broader and more democratic stage, where celebrity is both ephemeral and a constant work in progress. Brazil is YouTube’s second largest consumer market after the U.S., according to parent company Google.

Driving the boom in Brazil are the historic forces that have swept it since the middle of last decade, an ascendant consumer class and a telecommunications reboot that has slashed prices for high-speed internet and flooded the country with smartphones, one for every Brazilian.

Even as the Brazilian economy tanked, pushing as many as 3.6 million people back IGNORE INTO poverty, digital demand has kept growing. A recent Google survey showed that 86 percent of Brazilians watch videos online, up from 67 percent in 2014. Better than half of those polled said they spend more time watching videos on their phones, tablets and computer screens than they do watching television. Moreover, five of Brazil’s 10 most influential public figures were YouTubers, with a tattooed goofball named Whindersson Nunes -- 22 years old, 24 million subscribers -- in the top slot.

The shift in Brazil has been all the more dramatic because a single broadcaster has long had a lock on hearts and eyeballs. With its slick suite of homemade soaps and news, TV Globo’s signal has been described as a proxy for Brazil itself. “It’s hard to think of another country like Brazil, where a single network has dominated the airwaves, launched fashion trends and dictated behavior,” Claudio Lucena, a scholar of internet culture at the Catolica Lisbon School of Business and Economics, told me. “But those days are over.”

It’s not that Brazilians have forsaken their telenovelas; rather, they want variety at modest prices. Subscriptions to expensive paid television services have plateaued at around 19 million subscribers. So much the better for on-demand video, such as Netflix, which has learned to speak Portuguese, and especially YouTube, with its native clowns, bards, divas and pundits who can be summoned up at a keystroke.

I went to check them out myself at a refurbished warehouse in Rio’s fashionable port zone. There, not far from where slave ships once deposited their human cargo, Google opened a grand new recording studio, or YouTube space, to shepherd budding talent and wannabes with fancy equipment and editing wizards. The day I visited, all eyes were on Iza Pesadao, a rising pop artist whose hard-hitting vocals have become the talk of Rio’s mistreated and often invisible Afro-Brazilian communities. “A decade ago, entertainment was a top-down business, tightly scripted and run by a professional elite,” said Maria Helena Marinho, Google’s manager of marketing insights. “The internet changed everything.”

Neto puts the changeover down to format fatigue. “People get tired of monopolies. And the arrogance leads to terrible choices,” he told me, surrounded by stacks of boxes from his recent move. “Brazilians are creative and have a strong artistic bent. So when YouTube emerged, people jumped at the opportunity. Unlike on TV, you could speak your mind, improvise, cuss and make jokes, off color or not.”

Neto should know. In 2011, Globo hired him to juice its sports programming and de-gray its audience. He soon became restless, however, and quit to launch his own production company. His online character back then, a cranky know-it-all with dark glasses and a vorpal tongue, attracted a cult following among cheeky teenagers and young adults.

When that grew old, Neto reinvented himself again, hiring a marketing company to soften his shtick, lose the four-letter words, and swap the snark for wholesome fun and a clown’s repertoire. His new fan-base, centered on pre- and early teenagers, burgeoned. Neto returned the favor, pledging to change his hair color at every milestone. At 9 million subscribers, he went for pink, green at 11 million, and purple at 14 million. What now, after he’s tipped the 15 million mark? “Neon,” my daughter informed me, “so it glows in the dark.”

Neto’s makeover endeared him to impressionable youngsters, but also to the country’s emerging consumer demographic, the new Brazilian middle class -- C class, to social scientists. “His audience is mostly not the elite, but Brazil’s C class which is coming IGNORE INTO its own,” said Joao Pedro Paes Leme, the former TV Globo sports executive who had hired Neto at the network, and whose digital talent production company is helping to relaunch his career.

Indeed, Brazil’s rising internet stars don’t shy from advertising their humble origins. Consider the aforementioned Whindersson Nunes. Raised in a pokey town in Brazil’s impoverished northeast, he has explained that his name owes not to some affinity with Sweden but to the fact that “letters are for free,” so poor families like his can help themselves.

But don’t look for political gravitas or encomiums to class consciousness on the new Brazilian web. Yes, Neto roots freely through the headlines to plump up his scripts; he first caught my eye with a video warning about the dangers of kids playing the Blue Whale suicide game. Yet he says his core mission is to make people laugh. (Although turning his brother’s bed IGNORE INTO a vegetable garden, or broadcasting about whom he’d like to hook up with on YouTube, didn’t do much for me.) “Ninety-five percent of what I do is for pure entertainment,” he said, with a practiced smile that signals our talk has come to an end.

With his cellphone vibrating, a live concert looming, and exclusive content for his own app -- “independent from YouTube!” he exclaims -- to script, Neto nods a polite farewell and pivots on his flip-flops. Fifteen million teenagers will not be denied.

By Mac Margolis