He is one of South America’s most powerful TV tycoons, an 87-year-old media mogul who has for decades been a fixture on Brazilian screens.
But many viewers are now demanding that Silvio Santos, the celebrity owner of Brazil’s SBT network, be pulled off the air after he made the latest in a series of improper and offensive remarks to a guest.
During an telethon benefiting disabled children last weekend, Santos told Claudia Leitte, one of Brazil’s most famous singers, that he couldn’t hug her because it would make him “excited”.
“The way you are dressed it makes me want to get up out of my seat, have a few beers and then … seek comfort,” he smirked, prompting uneasy laughter from the studio audience and a grimace from the singer.
Santos has a reputation for his infelicitous and vulgar remarks: he once declined to dance with Brazilian pop star Anitta because, he said, it would arouse him; he told a woman from a troupe of plus size dancers she was pretty despite being its only black member; and asked a small child if she preferred sex, money or power – all on live television.
But his remarks to Leitte set off a nationwide storm in a country where rapes rose 8% from 2016 to 2017 and domestic violence is widespread.
Two days after the programme aired, Leitte challenged Santos in a Facebook post. “We see an example of what happens with many women every day, in many places. This is rampant, cruel painful and scary,” she wrote. “We are the victims.”
Coming after last month’s election victory of far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, the storm has exposed some of Brazil’s social faultlines.
Conservatives – including the president-elect – say they want to return to a more “traditional” past, but Bolsonaro’s rise has prompted an outspoken reaction from Brazilians who despair at his sexist and authoritarian attitudes.
Many see Santos as part of the same macho mindset.
“Silvio Santos represents a patriarchal culture, a sexist culture,” said Jacqueline Pitanguy, a sociologist and director of human rights, non-profit group CEPIA. “It is clearly a case of sexual harassment.”
Video of the incident clearly shows Leitte’s discomfort when Santos
said: “You are no longer a pretty little blonde. Now you are a sexy, provocative woman.”
“What we saw on TV was a pathetic scene of a woman being embarrassed,” said Regina Navarro Lins, a TV psychologist and writer. “How long will women have to put up with this?”
In an Instagram post, the actor Bruna Marquezine said: “When a presenter assaults a singer on national network, we can see how violence is normalized in our society. It’s become so normal we don’t know now how to react. Shame, fear of retaliation and exposure paralyze us. But you have to remember: THIS IS NOT NORMAL.”
Bolsonaro has not commented on the incident, but later phoned into the telethon, telling a delighted Santos he was a fan.
Many viewers supported a national icon they said was doing his job as an entertainer. Santos’s daughter, Daniela Beyruti, defended her “super father” on Instagram, saying she missed old-style TV, with “lots of joking and little embarrassment”.
A spokeswoman for SBT said neither the channel nor Santos would comment.
Santos started out as a street vendor, launched the Silvio Santos Programme in 1963, selling products via competitions, and set up his SBT network during Brazil’s military regime.
Days before the telethon, SBT screened patriotic interludes of postcard Brazil images, one of which bore the slogan “Brazil, love it or leave it” – a phrase used during the dark days of the military dictatorship Bolsonaro has praised. The interludes were removed after complaints.
“I thought this was shocking,” said Maurício Stycer, a TV critic who has written a Santos biography. “He needs to get up to date.”