Reaching Latinos: The Telenovela Flexes Muscles

Sep 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By J. Russell

Special to TelevisionWeek

With their super-dramatic style and economical production values, telenovelas are conquering the world.

Although most Latin American countries have originated shows, Mexico’s Televisa and Brazil’s Globo are the hemispheric giants. Both have sold telenovelas to more than 100 countries, including in Europe, the Middle East-and of course, North America.

“It is becoming impossible to speak of the future of telenovelas except as part of the wider future of the new information and entertainment systems as they become globally interconnected,” Texas A&M University assistant professor Antonio La Pastina and colleagues stated in a 2003 paper titled “The Centrality of Telenovelas to Latin America’s Everyday Life.”

Unlike U.S. soap operas, which can run forever, telenovelas have limited spans of about 180 to 200 episodes. They normally air Monday through Friday in prime-time or afternoon dayparts. Material can vary from dead-serious drama to comedy.

The limited runs make the form extremely adaptable. When the Mexican economy sputtered in the mid-1990s, Televisa cranked out “El Premio Mayor,” about a poor chump who wins the lottery, and the show tapped into the popular psyche. Likewise, producers can configure plots to showcase a quickly rising star or music group. “Dos Mujeres, Un Camino” in the early ’90s successfully mixed actor Erik Estrada, a love triangle and the well-meaning help of the pop band Bronco.

At one time, most story lines revolved around a poor, good-hearted woman who through luck or pluck becomes rich. That formula, for example, started the career of Thal%ED;a Sodi (star of “Mar%ED;a Mercedes”), now a U.S.-based singer. Contemporary protagonists can range from children to young lovers of either gender to mature spitfires.

Derene Allen, senior VP at consulting firm Santiago Solutions Group, predicts telenovelas will continue to attract healthy audiences in the United States regardless of the language issue. Research confirms the shows’ endurance. In 2002 public relations firm Porter Novelli found that 27 percent of Hispanics responding to an English-language survey were telenovela viewers.

“Since telenovelas are broadcast in Spanish, viewing frequency and impact are projected to be substantially higher among Spanish-language-dominant households/viewers,” the researchers reported.

Telenovela audiences skew female, and group initiation begins young. A series of focus groups in 2003 by Kristin Moran of the University of San Diego revealed that “the viewing of telenovelas seems almost habitual” among bilingual teen girls.

“When I initially asked if the teenagers watched telenovelas, they answered me in a tone that implied, ‘Of course, what a silly question,'” Ms. Moran wrote in her report, “A Reception Analysis: Latina Teenagers Talk About Telenovelas.”

“Many of the teens explained that they grew up watching these programs, often in the company of other family members,” she wrote. “The participants explained that they do not usually talk about the stories with their friends, indicating either that it is not worth mentioning because it is inconsequential or because it is such a part of daily life that [discussion] is redundant.”