Low End Theory

Shoestringing It in Salvador

By Brendan I. Koerner

Granted, seven days is barely enough time to pick up a few shards of Portuguese slang, let alone come to sweeping conclusions about the Brazilian national character. But you don't read this column for a dose of level-headedness, now, do you? So, your recently married narrator feels perfectly comfortable in making the following sweeping assertion: Brazil will never become a First World superpower until it gets some cheaper TV sets.

Laugh if you will, but I find it disturbing that a country with a per capita GDP of $8,400 can't hook up the hard-working masses with some $79 color TVs. Try as I might in the streets of Salvador, I couldn't find a new TV for under $90—and that was just about the cruddiest unit imaginable, complete with actual knobs in lieu of buttons. (Yes, they still apparently make some TVs with knobs.) On the plus side, though, there was no shortage of affordable boomboxes—a nod, perhaps, to the Brazilian habit of thumping music pretty much 24-7, in the most public way possible. After the jump, the full low-end electronics report from the cradle of Afro-Brazilian culture, as well as some uneducated guesses as to why the nation's cheapest TVs can't beat your run-of-the-mill Apex.

The first thing that geek visitors to Salvador will notice is that the electronics stores all double as appliance shops, too. TVs are stocked side-by-side with stoves and refrigerators, and you've got to weave your way between these domestic monstrosities in order to find the best deals. You've also got to deal with some salespeople, such as those at the ubiquitous Ricardo Eletro chain, who've obviously been trained in the art of the hard sell. Pleading an inability to comprehend Portuguese worked on occasion during my field research, but not always—several salesmen obviously thought I was all set to haul a 29-inch TV back to the United States.

In terms of recognizable international brands, Philips seems to dominate in Brazil. No big surprise there, given the company's penchant for reaching into developing markets. More intriguing was the prevalence of Brazilian brands, many of which are manufactured domestically. The biggest player is Gradiente, which makes everything from mobile handsets to plasma screens. A Gradiente TV was pretty much front and center in every electronics shop, alongside a gas stove being offered on a none-too-sweet layaway plan.

The Gradiente gear is nothing special in terms of features or performance, but the prices are several notches higher than you'd expect. Even the cheapest TV sets seemed to hover around the Rs 299 mark (c. $136), and there were no cut-rate 13-inch models that I could locate. I later discovered that Gradiente follows a very strange manufacturing strategy, at least by Coby or jWIN standards: the company sources components out of Shenzhen, but actually assembles products at a mammoth facility in Manaus. This may be advisable for political reasons, given the power of trade unions in Brazil, but it's gotta affect cost. And keep in mind that your humble narrator cares not for politics—just give it to me quick and dirty.

Gradiente does own a slightly cheaper brand, Philco, which was purchased just last year. (Yes, that Philco.) The Philco TP 1400 (pictured above) can be had for Rs 239 (c. $108) in Salvador, though that's still pretty expensive for Americans accustomed to sub-$100 sets of similar size. Gotta say, this baffled me, given that I've heard so much about how soap operas are a religion in Brazil, with huge chunks of the population tuning in each week. Does this mean that there's a vast, unseen (at least to a Yank tourist) market for secondhand TVs that I somehow missed?

Much more affordable were portable audio systems, especially those sold under the Britania Sound brand. The shelf system lives in Brazil, and every hole-in-the-wall electronics shop in downtown Salvador carries at least two dozen distinct models. Many can be had for under $60-$70, and provide enough pop to get a barbecue going. Why there would be more competitive prices for low-end audio rather than low-end video is beyond me, save for the standard rumination that perhaps Gradiente/Philco has a bit too much of a monopoly in the TV space. Thoughts from my Brazilian readers? Please advise.

Low End Theory

I wonder, too, whether the higher TV prices are simply a matter of Asian suppliers not yet recognizing the potential in the Brazilian market—or, on the flip side, Brazilian entrepreneurs not yet seeing the wisdom in hooking up with Guangdong contract factories. I've got to think that the first person to figure out how to get Apex-like 13-inch sets into the Brazilian market will make himself a bundle; no question that Brazil is still several steps behind the United States and Europe on the economic development scale, but there's also no question that the potential is there.

Of course, I could be missing some protectionist trade law that makes it nigh impossible for Asian off-brands to crack the Brazilian market. Or maybe there just needs to be a serious shift away from old-style commercial strips like Salvador's towards more big-box outlets in order for prices to break a little. (Again, wisdom from Brazilian readers would be appreciated. But my conclusion remains the same: If Brazil is to reach its full potential, it needs cheaper low-end TVs. And also more alcohol in their beer—trying to catch a buzz off Nova Schin is like trying to catch a fly with chopsticks.

BRAZIL ADDENDUM: The most curious electronics brand I spotted during my time in Salvador was CCE, which I recognized from this classic post at Old-Computers.com. Apparently they also manufactured a pretty stellar Atari 2600 knockoff back in the day, known as the Top Game. Had no idea that CCE was still around, but apparently they're still cranking out the occasional poorly constructed television. Kudos, my friends. Kudos.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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