Accidents in developing countries are frequent and have high mortality and morbidity rates. In Brazil, in 1995-1996, the year of this study, life supporting first aid (LSFA), which includes cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) basic life support (BLS) was not taught in schools. With the population of 165 million, the only way to teach the adult population on a large scale would be by television (TV), that is widely viewed. This study compares two groups of factory employees - 86 controls without TV exposure to LSFA and 116 exposed to brief LSFA skill demonstrations on TV. Their ability to acquire eight LSFA skills was evaluated: external hemorrhage control; immobilization of a suspected forearm fracture; treatment of a skin burn by cold flush; body alignment after a fall; positioning for shock and coma; airway control by backward tilt of the head; and CPR (steps A-B-C). Simulated skill performance on the evaluating nurse or manikin was tested at 1 week, 1 month, and 13 months. In the control group, 1-31% performed individual skills correctly; as compared to 9-96% of the television group (P<0.001). There was excellent retention over 13 months. Over 50% of the television group performed correctly five of the eight skills, including positioning and hemorrhage control. Television viewing increased correct airway control performance from 5 to 25% of trainees, while it remained at 3% in the control group. CPR-ABC performance, however, was very poor in both groups. We conclude that a significant proportion of factory workers can acquire simple LSFA skills through television viewing alone, except for the skill acquisition of CPR steps B (mouth-to-mouth ventilation) and C (external chest compressions) which need coached manikin practice.