In the early summer of 2016, residents of Rio de Janeiro, host city of the then-upcoming Olympic Games, braced themselves for disruptions to all aspects of their daily lives in the months ahead. But one thing would remain unchanged during the international sporting event: the primetime television schedule. Instead of broadcasting the games on weeknights, Rede Globo, Brazil’s premier television network, promised to air their regularly scheduled telenovelas—simply too popular to put on hiatus. Without telenovelas, “the country would stop,” Monica Albuquerque, Globo’s head of artistic development, told The New York Times in June 2016. “It’s cultural. It’s part of life. I can’t imagine Brazil without its soaps.”

In this regard, Brazil is no exception to the rest of Latin America, where telenovelas are, by far, the leading form of entertainment. Each night, millions of viewers across Mexico, Central and South America, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic tune in to watch these 30–45 minute serial dramas. While the style and content of telenovelas differ based on their country of origin, the genre is defined by its approach to storytelling, which is rooted in the conventions of 19th century melodramatic literature and theater. Telenovelas have fast-moving plots that rely on an abundance of twists and turns; they draw a clear line between the moral and the immoral; and their characters experience grand, unrestrained feelings—like love, lust, betrayal and jealousy—that appeal to the emotions of an audience.

The precursor to the telenovela is the radio soap opera, or “radionovela,” that American companies like Colgate-Palmolive and Proctor & Gamble brought to pre-Castro Cuba in the late 1930s. Over the decade that followed, radionovelas spread across Latin America and then, like the radio soaps in the United States, jumped to the small screen in the 1950s.

But despite their shared lineage, telenovelas and U.S. soap operas have evolved into distinct genres in both form and appeal. Soap operas can run for decades, while telenovelas usually span only 180-200 episodes. This allows telenovelas to develop a clear story arc and a definitive ending, while soap operas often eschew narrative closure—by introducing a variety of plots and subplots—to serve their longevity. Telenovelas are primetime television: they appeal to a broad audience, and the performers are national stars. Soap operas are daytime television: they have a smaller, more specific demographic, and the actors don’t share the star caliber of their primetime or film counterparts.

Telenovelas rely on an abundance of twists and turns; they draw a clear line between the moral and the immoral; and their characters experience grand, unrestrained feelings—like love, lust, betrayal and jealousy—that appeal to the emotions of an audience.

The popularity and primetime status of telenovelas make them highly profitable. Most air five or six nights a week, a boon for local and national advertisers. They are lucrative exports, as well: a trend that began in the 1970s and has steadily grown. Today, countries in Latin America export their programs to nations across the globe, including the U.S., Great Britain, Spain, France, China, Russia and Serbia. Networks also remake foreign telenovelas for their national audiences. Colombia’s Yo Soy Betty, la Fea, for example, first aired in 1999 and has since inspired 17 different adaptations, including the American comedy-drama Ugly Betty. In recent years, the telenovela’s influence on American primetime television has only increased. The sitcoms Jane the Virgin and Devious Maids are both loose adaptations of telenovelas from Venezuela and Mexico, respectively. And in 2016, the USA Network premiered The Queen of the South, an adaptation of La Reina del Sur, a popular series produced by Telemundo, the U.S. Spanish-language network.

But the appeal of telenovelas should not overshadow their significance. Although the serial dramas might have started as romantic diversions, their identity has evolved. Today, many set their personal stories against a political backdrop; they aim to reflect the current experience of their nations’ citizens and, by doing so, encourage change within their countries. Like their fast-moving plots, they keep things moving forward. And so it’s no surprise that the telenovela—with its flexible aesthetic, but unmistakable identity—remains impressively popular across Latin America.


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