Soap operas have been a popular form of TV entertainment since the 50s when the tube took over the households of many homes around the world. Although they started in the US, Latin countries did not take long to follow suit: Cuba began with their own brand of soap operas, which in the Latin world are called tele-novelas. Before the advent of television, both radio and foto-novelas were quite popular with the public. Yet the concept of having an audiovisual form of storytelling took over the Latin continent by storm.
What is the main difference between tele-novelas and soap operas then? First, they differ in length. American soap operas can last forever; shows like General Hospital started in 1963 and to my knowledge continue even today. They usually employ open narratives with no clearly set concepts except the location in this particular case: the setting is a hospital and the actors, of course, go through wholesale changes after each decade I would assume. I followed that show for the amount of a few months, and I must say that one should always be very careful with these programs; they are indeed addictive as hell, and I am glad I got off it cold turkey and without scratches and bruises.
On the other hand, the tele-novela is more limited and focused in its concept. They are as the term implies “novels for television," while the term soap opera comes from previous radio broadcasts that used to advertise soap products.
Usually the script of a tele-novela should have a clear outline and the average running time for a program is about six months, with a maximum of another additional term, so one year before they are taken off the air. Of course this depends on the ratings, and some shows are canceled prematurely, but there are very few if any shows that last as long as their American soap opera counterparts.
Although most of the stories are now original and expressly written for television, there has always been the temptation of remakes. There can be often up to three versions of the same tele-novela in the span of a few decades. Literary sources have also served as inspiration; for example, there was recently a modernized account of the Count of Monte Cristo, which had reasonable success in Mexico.
Why use remakes? Is it because the writers are just lazy? Is that the reason why we constantly see remakes of Hollywood movies? It actually follows a simple and logical premise: if movies have been successful in the past and have been proven to work with previous audiences, then we might safely assume that they will continue to attract crowds. It comes down to business sense and the manufacture of popular products. All they might do is add a new spin to it, modernize it and people will flock to these programs. Tried, tested and true with a faithful fan base.
Yet it works only so long, while not every product is suitable for all audiences. A recent remake in Mexico of Desperate Housewives was a huge flop. The reason was probably that the Mexican audience could not relate to the glamorous lifestyle or the particular sense of humor and although the show in its original was successful, the Latin remake just did not convince the public; it just did not translate nor sit well with the Mexican public.
Tele-novelas are often more than simple shows to the public; people have the need to identify with the characters, their economic standards, their language, the situations, the plot, the location, and the themes. Fairy tale stories of a poor woman winning over the love of a rich man, the age-old “Sabrina formula” if you will, is very popular in Mexican tele-novelas. And since their society is more conservative due to a strong Catholic following, the tele-novelas often need to reflect that stance to get an audience.
However, nowadays some Latin countries have become more aware of the power of tele-novelas as a means of educating people. More and more in its Brazilian and Colombian brands, tele-novelas have focused on more relevant and urging social and political issues, such as corruption, tolerance, discrimination, and even organ donation.
In Venezuela a group of women protested against the intended ending of a tele-novela in which the wife was to forgive her unfaithful husband. The screenwriter was harassed until he changed the script and had the wife ask instead for a divorce in the final episode. This clearly demonstrates a shift in the views of the television public and that some sexist norms are not accepted any more.
In Mexico too there have been more and more attempts to include a more realistic portrayal of society, as they started to include topics like abortion or child and sexual abuse in some of their programs. In addition, many people are tired of the predictable formula and are looking for originality.
This is the reason why Ugly Betty, originally a sitcom from Colombia has enjoyed great success in Mexico and the States, simply because the protagonist is not your typical beautiful character, but quite the opposite. It is a refreshing stance to not have your usual pretty well-dressed protagonists who always look good; whether they have just woken up, are serving a jail sentence or have just been shot at or kidnapped, their hair and make-up is always in place.
But it is an undeniable fact that tele-novelas have had their success worldwide. Mexico alone produces more than 3000 hours of tele-novelas totaling $250 million US equaling the cost of making Titanic. Yet they must be getting substantial benefits to spend so much money; it is astonishing that their tele-novelas have been dubbed in more than 50 languages and that Televisa, a major TV network, is looking to enter the large and growing Chinese market by flooding them with mandarin-dubbed Mexican tele-novelas.
It is true that for some people tele-novelas and soap operas are stories to identify with, to talk and marvel about, to use as an escape from harsh reality, from work, from stress, yet apart from its entertainment value, if used properly, it can also serve as a form of education for many.
It may be like “churros,” a popular Mexican type of junk food, cheap and not good for your health, lacking vitamins and minerals and filing you up for only a little while. But it can also serve as food for thought as we analyze its particular stance and reflection on society and social issues, which provide us then with valuable insight and knowledge.