The Power of the Telenovela

Romance. Drama. That’s what drives telenovelas, Latin American soap operas, one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world, with hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide.

Telenovelas — literally television novels — have some things in common with their American cousins, the daytime soap operas. Telenovelas have their roots in Latin America, starting as graphic novel representations of classic literature and stories, later evolving into radio programs.

When soap companies started radio dramas to sell cleaning products to housewives in the 1930s, they established programs in Cuba as well. But when American companies could no longer sponsor programs in Cuba, there was a diaspora of talented Cuban actors, writers and producers that scattered through Latin America and began melding the American product with Latin American storytelling.

But unlike U.S. soap operas, which ran for decades, telenovelas have a contained story arc, ending after a few seasons. This makes them highly marketable and exportable, says Diana Rios, associate professor of communication sciences at University of Connecticut. They air every day, making them highly profitable to advertisers.

Some are aired only in the country they are produced, but others such as “Yo Soy Betty, La Fea” (“Ugly Betty”) are redone and adapted for dozens of other countries.

There are some common running themes in telenovelas — love lost, mothers and daughters fighting, long-lost relatives, love found. Telenovela audiences, however, like their stories with all the loose ends wrapped up and a happy ending — a big wedding finale is common.

“Things have to be cleaned up so the audience has satisfaction. They won’t worry about Maria — did she find true love, her true mother or her true father,” Rios said.

But for those few seasons, these telenovelas have the attention of millions of viewers, said Dr. Michael Rodriguez, a UCLA primary care physician who works with the Latino community, making them a good vehicle for educational messages. (Read how telenovelas are used to spread health messages.) And unlike U.S. soaps, which are marketed to women, telenovelas are family programs.

“More than half of [Latinos] are watching them,” Rodriguez said, “I remember myself watching them with my mother. In fact, I still do watch them when my mom is visiting.”

They are a cultural touchstone, especially for Spanish speakers across the globe. Popular story arcs like long-lost family members resonate with Latinos whose families may have emigrated. Religious references will appear in several of these series, another touchstone to the predominantly Catholic Latino population.

For Latinos, watching telenovelas is often a way to keep in touch with their friends and family, especially those who have emigrated.

“It’s a conversation piece,” said Rios, “Latinos in the U.S. can talk about shows with people back in Latin America. … I’ve had conversations with friends and they’ll say, ‘Oh, look at that. One of my relatives had something like that happen to her.'”

Jesus Fuentes, the executive producer of “Encrucijada: Sin Salud No Hay Nada” (“Crossroads: Without Health There is Nothing”), said that viewers find themselves in these characters.

“You see the characters and you say, ‘I’m that one, but I could be that one, and I wish I could be that one,'” he said, “It’s like a house of mirrors.”

And while long-running soap operas such as Guiding Light and One Life to Live in the United States are being canceled, telenovela viewership in the United States is booming with 5.6 million people tuning in across the country versus 2.9 million soap opera viewers, according to Nielsen data.

And in the coming decades analyzing and studying the impact of telenovelas will be even more relevant as the United States’ Latino population continues to grow, said Rios. “[Telenovelas] are here to stay, and there’s just going to be more of them,” she said. “But they do have an impact and they are important to the Latino community.”

Telenovelas by the Numbers:

  • “La Reina,” a telenovela launched in 2011 by Telemundo, had a record $10 million budget, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It costs an estimated $50 million to produce U.S. soap operas annually, according to the LA Times.

  • Colombian telenovela “Yo Soy Betty, La Fea” has been adapted for series in 17 other countries: India, Turkey, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain, Greece, Belgium, Serbia, Czech Republic, Vietnam, Philippines, China, Poland, Brazil, Georgia and the United States as “Ugly Betty.”

  • Season-to-date, (Sept. 19 to Dec. 25, 2011) telenovelas in the United States averaged 5.7 million viewers a week, according to Nielsen data. Of those viewers, 3.1 million are age 18-49.

  • By comparison: Season-to-date (Sept. 19 to Dec. 25, 2011), soap operas on the U.S. broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) averaged a combined 2.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Of those viewers, 889,000 are age 18-49.

Also, check out Telenovelas Provide Platform for Public Health Messages

For the record, “Crossroads” is funded by Colorado Health Foundation, which is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.