This is a research paper I wrote in college which I am surprisingly proud of. Plus it highlights the important of the Hispanic population and various aspects of the US, including media.
Like most television shows, telenovelas got their start in Mexico by adapting popular radio shows, mostly from Cuba, to fit the new medium (Venegas). Now celebrating over fifty years on the air, telenovelas have gained a new popularity due to their distinct nature. America’s Hispanic population consists mainly of Mexicans, and most telenovelas watched in the United States are produced in Mexico. The telenovela market has grown exponentially, with more than 2 billion watchers world-wide (Hecht). One of the biggest networks airing telenovelas is Univision. Univision is a Spanish speaking network, predominantly serving the Hispanic population of the Americas. It is the fourth most watched network in the United States, and its programming consists mainly of telenovelas. However, the country that popularized telenovelas for the Latin world was Brazil, with many of their series dubbed from Portuguese to Spanish, or their plot lines being recreated. Aside from the extreme melodrama that telenovelas have brought to the “small screen,” these Hispanic versions of soap operas also give insight into many social problems that people face on a regular basis, and forces them to confront them, making people come back five-nights a week to watch these shows religiously.
Telenovelas have set themselves apart from soap operas by having some very obvious differences. While most soap operas run for years, telenovelas play around 150-200 episodes over the period of one year. This short period of time in which telenovelas run allows for viewers to look forward to a definitive ending and see the story through while allowing them to be able to move on to the next storyline (Hecht). John Hecht argues that broadcasters like the system that the telenovela schedule has set up for them because it allows them to forget about the time slot that the telenovelas are filling up, since they know it will bring them consistently high ratings during that time due to their popularity. They are also cheap to produce, costing producers around $20,000-$80,000 an episode and selling for about 30% above their production cost to networks, making producers a hefty profit (Hecht). Televisa is the top producer of telenovelas worldwide. It has sent shows to over 50 countries and it has made over $100 million dollars in revenue so far just from its exports to Univision (Hecht). The telenovela storyline has become so popular that many American networks, have turned them into their own version of weekly shows. Colombian hit, Yo soy Betty, la fea was turned into the network hit on ABC called Ugly Betty. The show was produced by actress Salma Hayek, who got her start on telenovelas, much like other breakthrough stars like Antonia Banderas and Ricky Martin (Venegas). Similarly, many American shows have been turned into the Spanish melodramas, such as “Gossip Girl,” which now has its own time-slot in Univision and is set and produced in Mexico.
With this population having the purchasing power between $240 million-$300 million, the market for what the Hispanic-American population wanted was growing exponentially (Venegas). American television broadcasters and producers started to realize how important it was to have the U.S. Latino population find its own niche on television. When Televisa launched the Hispanic network, Univision, in 1986 there was finally more Latin American television to compete with the other networks in the United States (Venegas). Because Televisa is based in Mexico, most of the telenovelas that are broadcast are sent out from Mexico. This has also opened the doors for other countries to produce their own telenovelas set in their own countries and create competition for other shows. Countries like Colombia and Venezuela became some of the biggest exports of telenovelas and created shows so popular that they were broadcast on predominantly Mexican and Brazilian television stations (Venegas).
Having these shows broadcast in the United States allows for the constantly-growing Hispanic population to have a large influence on the culture that television impacts. However, the glossy portrayal of the characters in these telenovelas have been criticized for not allowing for an accurate interpretation of the Hispanic population. The stereotypical telenovela usually revolves around the “bourgeois society” of the countries they are set in, which is unlike the majority of the Hispanic population that is watching these shows (La Pastina, Rego, Straubhaar). These telenovelas represent the “unfulfilled material aspirations of its audience” and promote consumerism to an extreme and contrasts it with other characters that don’t have the same availability to material goods (La Pastina, Rego, Straubhaar). On the other hand, the themes discussed in these episodes were usually showing actual social issues, such as gender and race equality. It is argued that “within certain limits, the telenovela is a vehicle of innovative, provocative and politically emancipatory popular culture rather than a mere instrument for the reproduction of capitalist ideology and consumer desires” (La Pastina, Rego, Straubhaar). While the telenovela is not a perfect representation of the standard of Hispanic life, it does give the viewers the ability to ask questions through the subjects of the shows. For example, in the telenovela Sin Senos no Hay Paraíso (There’s No Paradise without Breasts) a woman is raped and decides to have an abortion. Not only is the title of the show a commentary on the pressure that society puts on body-image, it also confronts a controversial social topic of pro-choice in a safe public environment that’s socially acceptable.
Other than that, the structure of the show is usually based on a leading couple, and a story motivated by class structure and promoting social mobility (La Pastina, Rego, Straubhaar). There is also a clear difference between networks and their styles. While the popular Mexican telenovela is described as bland, the innovative Brazilian telenovela is described as being tough (Venegas). This means that the Brazilian telenovelas brought a more passionate and straightforward attitude, while the Mexican storylines weren’t as complex. The Mexican telenovela keeps the storyline pretty traditional with the main couple overcoming obstacles, usually set up by one main antagonist, and ending the show together, such as Corazón Salvaje (Wild Heart). The Brazilian telenovela follows multiple storylines that don’t necessarily deal with one or two central characters, but an array of them such as Celebridade (Celebrity). Both styles, however, keep the melodramatic structure of the genre which called the attention of the audience.
Advertisers take advantage of the time that the telenovelas are played as well. Unlike soap operas, telenovelas are played during primetime, allowing for all members of the family to be involved in the series. Because most of the viewers are in a family atmosphere and are Hispanic, most of the products advertised are specific to the needs of the Hispanic-American family, such as advertising Inglés Sin Barreras (English without Barriers) which teaches English to Spanish speakers. Some advertisers were also aimed at younger audiences as well, or events and products that everyone in the family could simultaneously enjoy (Venegas). During Christmas time in Miami, the Christmas-themed Park, Santa’s Enchanted Forest, often advertises during these times as a family-friendly activity. Some of the advertising also showed the assimilation between the Hispanic and American culture due to the vast differences in advertising during that time slot compared to English-speaking channels. Televisa was also looking to appeal to the third-generation Spanish viewer, one who speaks English, but have a Spanish speaking family and watches Spanish television, so they are therefore familiar with telenovelas (Venegas). Through Univision, Televisa is able to reach a wider Hispanic audience (Venegas). However, these channels are also concerned with catering to the different Hispanic cultures in America, therefore, many of the stories have themes that apply transnationally. Cristina Venegas says that the narratives have international subjects which appeal across cultural boundaries making the series identify with the various Hispanic groups in the nation. Many of these subjects are often centered on leaving family behind for more life opportunities, a common theme in immigrants’ lives from any country.
Michael Rodriguez argues that telenovelas allow for educational messages to be sent to the family as a whole and bring certain positive messages to Hispanics that are not expressed in other forms of entertainment, such as pursuing a higher education and making responsible life choices (Jacobson). It is also argued that telenovelas bring positive health messages to the viewers (Kane). Hispanic-Americans are one of the “nation’s most uninsured, under-resourced and — increasingly — unhealthy segments of the population” and they are also the most unemployed culture in the United States. Telenovelas have often tied in health problems into the plotlines, bringing light to an issue that is often left unattended for most Hispanics (Kane). Other common story arcs are popular for most of the Hispanic population, because many of the plots include important topics such as migrating to other countries and losing touch with family members (Jacobson). This is a theme that not only Hispanics, but any immigrant can relate to, opening the opportunity for telenovelas to relate to a wider audience than just Hispanics. Other important social issues that are discussed, such as in Yo soy Betty, la fea, are sexism and class status. This show depicts the life of an average looking girl trying to succeed in the fashion industry. While she must at first confront the issues of her looks and how hard it would be for her to progress in the fashion industry, she must also face the problem that she is a woman trying to get ahead in a patriarchal world. The underlying issue that the show presents is that she cannot use her looks to get ahead in the industry, like many of her female counterparts, and that she must use other skills. This show not only presents the idea that being unattractive is a great disadvantage for females in the workplace, it also presents a positive message to Hispanic girls, and girls everywhere, that they can use their intelligence to become successful. Telenovelas continued to point to female-oriented topics that were uncommon to discuss in other mediums, such as birth control (Pérez). They also give women the chance to see their roles being played out in a family dynamic where the female was the more dominating figure of the family (Pérez). Telenovelas are “used as a way of communicating and as linkage among women of different generations” and have produced a solidarity between Hispanic women (Pérez).
It should also be pointed that telenovelas have changed since the 1960’s to the 1990’s in themes and central plotlines thanks to their short running time, a transition that would not be so easy to make with a decades long soap opera that must have coherence in the storyline (LaPastina). The more recent telenovelas have dealt with more modern topics, such as single motherhood (LaPastina). The themes that are often represented in telenovelas are social issues that are the most popular during that time. For example, in the 60’s telenovelas were more concerned with bureaucratic corruption because there was more exploitation by the government during that time (LaPastina). On the other hand, there were some subjects that were distasteful to talk about. In Brazil, racism was never mentioned because of the desire to present Brazilian culture in an idealized way (LaPastina). Because the birth of the telenovela, even in radio, came from the serialized novel from 18th century England and France, the topics that were later represented in radio and television were pretty similar to those that were represented in the literature in the sense that there were some things people didn’t mention in literature, which have been kept traditionally taboo, such as race (LaPastina). When melodramas transitioned to radionovelas to a pre-Castro Cuba in the 1930’s, some subjects were left out to keep in theme with the original medium (LaPastina). By the 1960’s, most telenovelas were adaptations of literary novels and markets started producing their own stories that attracted a particular audience to influence the local economy (LaPastina).
When telenovelas started gaining more North American influence, producers and networks started demanding more explicit material to satisfy the less conservative population (Pérez). They were looking for more sex on screen involving multiple partners (Pérez). This caused for shows to be more sexually explicit and defying the institution of marriage, placing less value on committed relationships and more value on promiscuity (Pérez). Pre-marital sex became more prominent on screen as well, which was a representation of the society changes of the time (Pérez). Telenovelas were changing to fit in all of the elements that were considered appealing during the time that they were being aired, and this only attracted audiences more. Similarly, female characters started to become less domesticated and erase some of the male stereotypes as well in order to fit the modern view of the world and remove traditional perspectives. However, there was still a difference in generation, while some of the younger viewers felt that the plotlines were meant to be exaggerated and were able to appreciate the telenovela for entertainment’s sake, most of the older generation felt that they had been in situations similar to those depicted on the shows (Pérez). This illustrates that, despite the discrepancies that there were in some of the viewers, telenovelas allowed for a wide spectrum of personalities to enjoy the content.
Still people have criticized the popularity of telenovelas because of the melodramatic content which is often looked down upon as poor entertainment (La Pastina, Rego, Straubhaar). Scholars have argued that telenovelas promote an uneducated entertainment system and present extreme ways for people to deal with situations (La Pastina, Rego, Straubhaar). The problem with this is that some people have blurred the line between what is real and what is exaggerated and many people have taken the melodrama of the shows and applied it to their own lives. While some of them recognize that these series have brought about issues that are relevant to the society and are important to talk about, they argue that these issues are not dealt with correctly through telenovelas because of the exaggerated plots and acting which makes it difficult for some to seriously consider these problems as real-life issues and not just a theme to move the story forward (La Pastina, Rego, Straubhaar). The government of the countries where these shows are produced have also benefitted from the messages that they are sending because the population feels that they have a way to express themselves. The government structure has allowed for an open expression of television and networks, and has also brought a large amount of revenue due to the popularity of the shows. While these shows have not directly influenced government policy, it has influenced people’s opinions making them more involved in government decisions. Government structures are able to use those time slots as well to advertise their own products (La Pastina, Rego, Straubhaar).
Over time, telenovelas and soap operas have developed as different genres. Antonia LaPastina says that in 1986 the telenovela was defined in Hollywood as “a popular art form as distinctive and filled with conventions as the Western produced in the United States.” They have provided the Hispanic community with an outlet, not just in the Western world, but internationally, that was not available to them before. And it has led other people an insight into the Hispanic culture. As actor Antonio Banderas said “Latinos are hot, and we are not the only ones that think so…we have the greatest art, music, and literature” which could explain the worldwide phenomenon that telenovelas have created (Dávila). The genre has also overcome the boundaries of being a primarily female fascination, and has given all members of the family a slot on primetime television which has allowed a solidarity within the Hispanic community and family structure. These melodramas have also exploited social and political issues which have allowed the Hispanic community to face issues that would have otherwise stayed silent.
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