BBC News
April 1, 2006

How telenovelas conquered the world

By Javier Lizarzaburu
BBC World Service's Close Up programme

The telenovelas - Latin American soap dramas - are stereotypical, over the top and melodramatic - but, also, highly successful.

In fact, they are possibly the number-one form of human entertainment on the planet.

The facts are something to be reckoned with. This addictive formula has captivated audiences in Africa, Asia and Europe, and telenovela stars are mobbed at airports in Poland, Indonesia, China and the US.

Hundreds of millions of people watch telenovelas around the globe, everyday. Some go as far as saying two billion people - a third of the human race - are glued to these programmes on a daily basis.

But having been established on the simplest of formulas, they are now expanding their audiences by raising social issues.

'Love and logic'

Traditionally, most telenovelas tend to reproduce the same idea: one couple falls in love and have to fight disapproval and obstacles, until they end up together, usually on the last episode.

"You have the struggle between good and evil, between poor and rich, and this process of trying to finally fulfil your dream of a romantic relationship and live happily ever after," said Antonio La Pastina, professor of communications at Texas A&M University.

One indication of the degree to which they are taken seriously was given when women took to the streets in Venezuela protesting about a plot centring on a husband who cheated on his wife.

The writer was planning for the wife to forgive him in the last episode, but after he was threatened by some of the protesters in a grocery store, he changed the script to allow the wife to get a divorce.

Carla Estrada, one of the foremost telenovela producers in the world, said that a good script is the most important aspect of a successful telenovela.

"You need suspense, emotion, love and logic, in order to carry the story through 190 episodes," she said.

"It's not easy."


According to some estimates, Mexico alone produces almost 3,000 hours of telenovelas each year, at a total cost of about US $250m - more or less the cost of, for example, the Hollywood film Titanic.

In the end, though, it is the audience who decides what really works.

"The telenovela has managed to create a very loyal market," Ms Estrada explained.

"They're loyal to a market that thinks of them. It's like having a daily date with someone.

"For some people, the telenovela is like their own life - and this is a continuing process that creates a feeling of belonging and identity."

And now, people are beginning to see the telenovela as a tool for social change.

Even the producing countries have now developed styles of their own. Venezuelan telenovelas are designed purely for entertainment.

Meanwhile Mexican ones tend to be the more melodramatic, and are very conservative. Colombian telenovelas tend to show the diversity of the country - with a feeling of more contemporary issues, like corruption, transvestites and greed, and with the use of irony and comedy.

It is worth remembering also that it was the Colombians who broke with the mould of telenovelas by producing the enormously successful Betty the Ugly, where the main character, as the name suggests, wasn't the prettiest girl in town.

The Brazilian soaps, however, are more sophisticated, with different stories, like human cloning or love between Muslims and Christians and more of the social realism.

When one soap - Family Ties - dealt with a character who needed a bone marrow transplant after getting leukaemia, the Brazilian attitude towards organ donation was completely changed.

Cultural influence

And beyond the world of dreams, some telenovelas, it seems, have began to push the envelope a bit further and deal with issues that before were considered taboo.

For decades, the main telenovelas producers in Mexico and Brazil were often criticised for being aligned with the political powers of the moment and not allowing any criticism of the government.

But the opposite is also happening, says Maria Luisa Alves, of Mexico's Television Azteca.

"They have started making more political telenovelas," she says.

"More controversial events are being included in the Mexican telenovela - and that is a new trend. They have featured homosexuality, having a child with special needs, abortion, and sex before marriage. In a very Catholic society, I think that is a lot to say on public television at prime time."

And the more global telenovelas become, the bigger the cultural influence they seem to have.

But regardless of the weakness or the strengths of this very Latin American product, the truth is that millions of people around the globe, love them.

"For an hour, six times a week, we can forget about our sorrows, our fears, our personal little mysteries - and embrace a wonderful love story that works as a balm for our souls," explains Carolina Espada, one of the main writers for Venevision, the main telenovela producer in Venezuela.

"Long live the Telenovelas."


Literally Spanish for "television novel"

Produced in nearly all Spanish-speaking countries and in Brazil

Standard length is 180 episodes

First telenovela was Brazil's Sua Vida Me Pertence (Your Life Belongs To Me) in 1950

Preceded by radionovelas