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How telenovelas captured the world's entertainment scene

How and why telenovelas transcend divergent cultures and become an addictive part of everyday life.

Man proposing to woman on beach

Why are Telenovelas based in Latin America so popular in far flung cultures and regions and why are they so addictive?

The word “telenovela” is a contraction of the Spanish words “televisión” and “novela where the latter is a Spanish and Portuguese word for “novel”. 

From the operational point of view, a telenovela is just another type of soap opera however, there is a significant difference namely; how telenovelas have thinner storyline unlike say your typical American soap operas that tend to have intertwined plots that drag almost indefinitely.

The art behind Telenovelas

Most of the time, the telenovelas are articulated around romantic intrigues strewn with so many pitfalls. 

But in the end, it’s Love that triumphs.

Their themes can also cover contemporary sensitive issues like it was in the case in Brazil where they cast the first black woman as the main protagonists in 2004. 

In one of Rede Globo’s most successful productions called Da Cor do Pecado (Shades of Sin), Afro-Brazilian actor Taís Araújo was featured as the main protagonist on a Brazilian telenovela thus breaking boundaries during a time when black actresses were frequently relegated to playing maids or background roles. 

Apart from addressing sensitive issues like racism, they have also recently gone as far as addressing issues like homophobia, which is a particularly sensitive and a controversial issue in Latin America with strongly held catholic values. 

Telenovelas are very accessible genres, and that’s why you will often here critics describing them as destined for people with a very “low level of culture.” 

But is it a fair criticism? From a technical point of view, you would agree, particularly when you consider that the Telenovela craze in the world appeared in the early 1990s when the world was already exposed to high-quality American soap operas like Dallas.

When put alongside an American soap at the time, the camera work was not only poor, but they also just happened to have very poorly done voiceovers. 

As a matter of fact, the dubbing was so poorly done that the Spanish and Portuguese voices were still audible.

But despite this weakness, they had one redeeming aspect about them namely; the melodrama.

Telenovelas feed on Melodrama, and plenty of global audiences were so much engrossed on the daily foundational questions that resonated with so many viewers. 

How Latin America And Eastern Europe Became Strange Bedfellows Through Telenovelas

After the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the newly independent Eastern and Central European nations wanted to find an escape from the grimness and bleakness of their daily economic situation. 

A Telenovela was in some aspects a welcome distraction for the Polish, Russians, Romanians, Croatians etc. The ordinary citizens were not in any way in the mood for Soviet made programs that was engorged with propagandic messages.

A Mexican soap opera for example, with its bright coloured decors, flamboyant characters dorning flashy clothes was in stark contrast to the decaying physical infrastructure, the food shortages etc. 

With a Telenovela you could binge watch it and sit there engrossed as you forget the daily problems.

Telenovelas conquered Russia in a matter of weeks. Discussing the early success of The Rich Also Cry, the Moscow Times wrote “when the film started, streets became desolate, crowds gathered in stores selling tv sets, tractors stopped in the fields, and guns fell silent on the Azerbaijani-Armenian front.” Without breaking a sweat, Los Ricos outperformed the imported U.S. soap Santa Barbara, which ran at the same time in much of Russia. Central and eastern Europe also fell to the novela charm. A Escrava Isaura (Isaura, the Slave), a historical Brazilian telenovela about the slave trade, received top honors in Poland. In some cases, telenovelas even sparked civic activism. Townspeople in the Serbian town of Kucevo—so overwrought that they hurdled the boundary between reality and fantasy—drafted a letter to the Venezuelan government pleading the case of the title character in the hit show Kassandra. In the Czech Republic, restaurants that did not have televisions reportedly emptied out when the Venezuelan show Esmeralda aired

Some would even go as far as suggesting that the reason why Telenovelas became so popular in countries that had recently emerged from communism was that on a psychological level, Telenovelas spoke more directly to such viewers.

It was the comfort with which these fictional characters who were not affluent, embraced their identity. 

Their daily struggle to overcome the evil protagonists who stood in their way to obtain true love – often with someone from a different social class from them.  

These were much more relatable and realistic experiences for many audiences than what you often found in other American soap operas like “The Bold and the Beautiful” or Dallas.  

They came at such a time when for many former soviet countries were so much tired of politics. 

Indeed, it was the same case in Asia, where countries like the Philippines and Indonesia were binge watching and often producing their own version of soap operas that were directly inspired from the Mexican and Brazilian melodramas.

People started talking endlessly about the latest plot twists on their way to work and within a short time, Telenovelas had replaced politics and sports as the topic of conversation. 

You would find people congregating in cafes to catch up to the latest episode in the same way people do when there is a huge match on TV.

The journey, the struggles, and the obstacles portrayed by the characters leapt out of their cultural zones and raced around the globe which is a confirmation of humanity sharing in the international language of melodrama. 

Also, the fact that they tackle controversial narratives like race, doesn’t mean that they have to necessarily approach it from a political perspective. 

On the contrary, it is the subliminal messaging that goes behind some of these contentious themes. 

When they portray a black character as coming from a rich or middle class background, that alone made audiences confront their own prejudices and the deeply held cliches in Latin American societies – and why not other societies outside Latin America?

In sum, they made people comfortable to talk about a highly charged political issue without being political about it. 

People were more interested in the larger story without being negatively necessarily obsessed with the race of the actors.

This approach to such sociological realities was a theme that was both easily accessible and relatable, and it characterized what already exists in other parts of the world with high levels of racial, tribal and religious miscegenation. 

The protagonists in almost all Telenovelas, always ends up falling in love in with someone from a different social extraction despite the societal obstacles and familial constraints before them. 

It is something every person in that audience is bound to experience in one way or another. 

We may not tempt it in real life, but such is the realistic nature of the fantasy that we do not outrightly dismiss it off hand-it because, it can happen to us or someone we know.

Written by Briana Anabtawi, Head of Service & Operations, LEXIGO: As Head of Service and Operations, Briana is responsible for quality, client satisfaction and efficiency in service delivery for LEXIGO Strategic Clients and Partners. Briana's professional background in the travel and tourism industry has provided her with a unique insight into culture, language and project management.