My telenovelas class is having some special experiences these days. This week we also had a phone conversation with writer Leonardo Padrón, author of the following telenovelas:

Ciudad Bendita (2006-2007)
Cosita Rica (2003-2004)
Amantes de Luna Llena (2000-2001)
El País de las Mujeres (1998-1999)
Contra Viento y Marea (1997)
Aguamarina (1997)
Amores de Fin de Siglo (1995)
Gardenia (1990).

His work goes beyond telenovelas. He's a well-regarded poet:

El Amor Tóxico (2005)
Boulevard (2002)
Tatuaje (2000)
Balada (1993)
La Orilla Encendida (1983)

And film writer:

Miranda (2006), dirigida por Diego Rísquez
Manuela Saenz (2000), dirigida por Diego Rísquez
La Primera Vez (1997), dirigida por Luis Alberto Lamata

In the last two years, Leonardo Padrón has also worked on radio with Los Imposibles, a show organized by seasons in which he interviews 20 personalities that are "impossible to ignore."

I must mention that Los Imposibles 1 and Los Imposibles 2, turned into books, are now editorial successes.

These recognized writer had a very interesting conversation with my students. Among the topics we discussed were:
  1. The way he has explored the feminine through characters that break the traditional telenovela stereotype of the submissive and suffering woman who waits for, or needs, a Prince Charming who will rescue her from poverty, or from a loveless or senseless life. In contrast, Leonardo Padrón creates female characters that are warriors, with a will of their own, and who have agency over their destiny. (For example, Miranda in El País de las Mujeres).
  2. How he constructed Olegario in Cosita Rica, a character allegorical to President Hugo Chávez. He shared with us his intention that this character would elicit reflection in the audience. We also discussed how the Venezuelan audience read this character, and how the "villain" was in their eyes the most charismatic character of this telenovela.
  3. His reasons to choose Roque Valero as the male protagonist of Ciudad Bendita, and the calculated risk he took by having a protagonist that broke the stereotype of the traditional "galán" and a love story that transgressed the established telenovela codes.
  4. His interpretation of how the U.S. Latino market is changing the telenovela genre. And his concern that this market, dominated by Mexican immigrants from the popular classes who are used to traditional telenovelas, is beginning to determine the way telenovelas are written and produced in countries like Colombia and Venezuela. (I share this concern as I've expressed before in this blog: 1, 2).

At the end of our conversation, Leonardo Padrón congratulated my students for the level of the questions they asked. My students and I thanked him for the honesty of his answers, and for visiting our classroom. Our telenovelas class would be incomplete without the voice and presence of this recognized author.

The semester's end is fast approaching and there are only two weeks left in my Telenovelas class. Yesterday we had a special guest via phone: talented actor, director and writer, Daniela Bascopé, who shared with us her time and experiences.

A few weeks ago, Daniela received the Best Actress Award in the Venezuelan Film Festival in Mérida for her role in film Al Borde de la Línea:

Below, a list of the telenovelas in which she has appeared and the names of her characters:

Ciudad Bendita (2007)- Fedora
El Amor las vuelve Locas (2006)- Rosaura
Engañada (2003)-Gabriela
La Soberana (2002)- Cherry
Toda Mujer (1999)- Elízabeth
Samantha (1998)-Anabella

Daniela talked to us about the hardest character she ever played (was in film), how her acting experience is a great asset for her work as director, and the way real life inspires the films she writes and directs.

When we asked her if, as an actress, she felt any difference between working in a telenovela "rosa" (most of the telenovelas she's worked in are "rosa") or in a more "verista" telenovela (like Ciudad Bendita), Daniela explained that in the traditional telenovela rosa, a character's lines are more farfetched and less realist than in telenovelas like the ones Leonardo Padrón writes. She also mentioned that in the traditional telenovela, actors must handle situations that are even contradictory,  where their characters don't follow a logic line. In contrast, in telenovelas "veristas" or "de ruptura", the words and actions of the characters tend to be more realistic.

Daniela's words resonated with me and echoed those of the many actors I've interviewed during my research. In particular, throughout Ciudad Bendita, many actors told me that their character was a "pleasure" because it was "served" to them.

In sum, it was a special class thanks to our special guest. My students and I sendour sincere gratitude to Daniela.

Recently, I wrote a post about my concern regarding the loss of local color and flavor in Venezuelan telenovelas due to the lack of competition, now that RCTV is out of the open airwaves.

An important aspect of this no-competition phenomenon is the definition of local "success" or "failure" of a telenovela under this particular conditions.

Traditionally, ratings and shares have been the currency of the television system. Of course, good ratings aren't always accompanied by quality television. But, these numbers are considered by the industry and by advertisers as the measure of tv consumption.

But, what happens with the perception of these numbers when there isn't competition, as in the Venezuelan television case?

I don't think there's a change in the advertisers' perceptions. They know well that now that RCTV is only on cable, Venevisión is the colossus and the most watched tv network in Venezuela. For them, ratings have the same meaning they've always had. It's business as usual.

This is possibly true also for the majority of people who watch telenovelas in Venezuela. Those who don't care about ratings, or who wins, but who just want to be entertained by their telenovela of choice. Their decision-making process every evening is still pretty much the same. They just have fewer options, courtesy of the Venezuelan government.

I note a change in perception, though, in those members of the audience that are most committed to the telenovela genre: bloggers and message board participants. In those spaces politics frequently color the perception of whatever is on the tv screen. Ratings, which are seldom made public, are interpreted, even when there hasn't been access to them. Opinions are created about this or that telenovela, and spirals of silence (Noelle-Neuman, 1974) appear among those who disagree, but who perceive themselves as being in the minority, even if they aren't.

Given Venezuela's intense political polarization and the soon-to-happen important constitutional reform referendum, I'm not surprised by most of what I read in blogs and boards. However, there are some arguments that intrigue me. For instance, there is the generalized assumption that if RCTV wasn't only on cable, that its telenovelas would win on primetime. This, of course, is impossible to know for sure. The most important thing I've learned in all these years studying telenovelas is that the audience is unpredictable. Therefore, RCTV could well win or lose.

There is an interesting paradox that has caught my attention. The most visited post in the Spanish version of my blog is the only one that mentions Venevisión's telenovela Arroz con Leche. (Here the post's version in English). However, participants in message boards frequently say that this telenovela is a failure. Some argue that its share is lower than Venevisión's average intriguing and fascinating argument...That is, that since the telenovela has no competition, then it competes against the network that produces it.

This disparity between the number of hits to that particular post and the opinions expressed on the Internet made me look carefully at recent shares and ratings for the 9 p.m .slot.

Below, a graphic I prepared with the shares of the first two weeks of November. I didn't include Sundays (no telenovelas air on Sundays), or the days where baseball games preempted the telenovela's broadcast.

(Please click on the graphic so you can see it bigger):

A few reflections:

* Because RCTV isn't on the open airwaves anymore, the distance between Venevisión and the rest is immense, in terms of share.
* At 9 p.m., Televén and the Cable (aggregate share of all cable outlets) fight tooth and nail for second place.
* On most days, telenovela Arroz con Leche has a better share that its network average (green line).
* It's still impossible to predict who would win at 9 p.m. if RCTV was still on the commercial airwaves.

So, what can we say about the success or failure of Venevisión's telenovelas, now that there is no competition?

I don't believe we can clasify them as a failure, given the distance between them and the other options offered by Televén and the other commercial TV outlets.

At the same time, their success will always be tarnished by the absence of its traditional competitor, RCTV. It's like those baseball records with an asterisk.

On the other hand, what can we say about the success or failure of RCTV's telenovelas, now that they air only via cable?
We can't say they are successful or failures. We can only compare their numbers with the other options available by cable. Again, in baseball terms, this is like speculating whether an African American player who was never allowed to play in the Major Leagues would have been a record holder. Unfortunately, we can only speculate...

The most important thing is that by being assured (Venevisión) or incapacitated (RCTV) to hold the local market's supremacy, the focus of network executives and owners will shift to the international market. In this way, the terms of the game change. And, maybe, the way Venezuelan telenovelas will be written and produced from now on will change too.

Just like telenovelas can carry messages that promote health and the improvement of certain sociocultural problems (see my last post), these shows can also include political topics.

In Brazil, the vanguard of realist telenovelas, realism, politics and telenovelas have frequently walked hand in hand (see Realism and Politics in Brazilian Telenovelas by professor Mauro Porto). In Venezuela we have the cases of Por Estas Calles and Cosita Rica. In all these instances, telenovelas actively participated in the political conversation of their country of origin.

It's interesting to note that the serialized melodramatic format of telenovelas is being used in the U.S. not only to promote health and education in the Hispanic community (again, see my last post), but also for political purposes. In particular, the political campaign of Democrat Barack Obama is using a micro-telenovela consisting of three 4-minute episodes titled a Tu Voz, Tu Voto in an effort to win the primary election in the key state of California. In this way, telenovela-inspired formats have become the media format of choice when the goal is to reach U.S. Latinos:

One of the aspects regarding telenovelas that fascinates me the most is the way these shows can be used to deliver health messages and/or messages related to sociocultural problems and issues, such as domestic violence. In my class we've studied with interest some instances in which telenovelas have presented such topics (see my post FROM MY RESEARCH TO MY CLASSROOM: TELENOVELA RECEPTION)

Recently, the Red & Black, UGA's student newspaper, published an article about doctoral student in Public Health, Leslie Rodríguez, who is focusing on how telenovelas can deliver health messages.

The article underscores the importance of telenovelas for communicating health content to immigrant populations. In particular, it mentions the case of the Telemundo telenovela Amarte Así, which included an overweight male character whose untreated diabetes renders him impotent: Don Pedro personified by Mexican actor Edgar Vivar (Sr. Barriga and Ñoño in famous sit com series El Chavo).

Conscious of the role that telenovelas play in the culture of Latino immigrants, health organizations in the U.S. are using the melodramatic serialized format to educate and promote healthy behavior. For instance, in Boston, the prestigious Joslin Diabetes Center produced Rosa's Story/La Historia de Rosa, an audionovela that teaches basic information about diabetes and its treatment, and dispels myths and misconceptions about this condition that affects Latinos in a disproportionate way.

Another example is Esperanza's Story/La Historia de Esperanza, audionovela that targets Latinas as it delivers empowering anti-domestic violence messages. This novela, recorded in Spanish, was produced by Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication's doctoral student Lenette Golding.

In my next post: The use of telenovelas for political messages .

Last week we read the publication of the shares of Venezuelan television for the month of October:

Venevisión: 58,1%
Televen: 21,0%
VTV: 6,3%
Globovisión: 6,0%
RCTV International: 4,4%
Tves: 4,1%

Source: AGB. Medición nacional. Total televidentes ABCDE de 6 a 12am. Octubre 2007.

In the message board of Television Venezolana e Internacional (TVVI), the reactions (1, 2) have centered mainly on:

* The fact that, even though it is now on cable only, RCTV International, has a bigger share than the government channel that took over its frequency, TVES.

* Whether Venevisión has capitalized the absence of RCTV. In other words, whether it has increased its share now that RCTV is only on cable.

Since I'm completely opposed to the way the government did away with the opposition that RCTV represented (see my posts 1, 2 and 3), I'm happy that RCTV International has a better share than TVES.

As for Venevisión, the network has benefitted from RCTV's absence. Following are the approximate shares during April this year, (RCTV was closed at the end of May):

Venevisión: 35-40%
Televen: 10-15%%
VTV: 5-6%
Globovisión: 2-3%
RCTV: 23-28%

We should note too that both Televén and Globovisión have also increased their shares in the post-RCTV era.

However, and even though ratings and shares are the currency of the television business, I'm concerned tha the lack of competition will change the way television is made in Venezuela.

I'm particularly concerned about telenovelas. I worry that without internal competition, telenovelas will be produced with the sole purpose of international sales. We are seeing it already. Ciudad Bendita, my last case study, is probably the last telenovela broadcast by Venevisión which was designed to win the ratings war in Venezuela. As for RCTV International, it is now co-producing with Telemundo in order to survive and be sure of its international sales. I'm not sure yet what form their productions will take. The first one, Toda una Dama, a fair remake of the extraordinary telenovela Señora originally written by José Ignacio Cabrujas, has a cast in which talent is uneven.

I'm concerned that as priority is given to international sales over local success (which doesn't matter anymore given the lack of competition), Venezuelan telenovelas will lose their local color and flavor. Many believe that there is nothing wrong with this. Furthermore, they think that this is exactly what the Venezuelan industry needs to regain the top place it occupied once in the international market. I disagree. Firstly, because the political economy of the international telenovela business is different to the one that was in place when Cristal and Kassandra conquered the world. Today the global market is dominated by remakes and telenovelas that are both short and formulaic. There is no risk-taking these days. Secondly, because in Venezuela telenovelas and the social formation have a particularly strong dialogic relationship. Without losing the universality of melodrama, telenovelas have spoken to us, Venezuelans, about who we are, how we love and how we stop loving. If we take away the local flavor, we will be closing this important dialogue between television and culture, and we will diminish the space for autoanalysis. We will also ascertain that our local culture isn't good enough to be present in the international arena.

There was a time in which we enjoyed listening to the different accents, words and sayings present in the telenovelas of varied countries. It was a time in which the local conquered the global. We now live the inverse moment: the global imposes itself over the local. And the global is an imposed construction that implies uniformity, repetition and conformity. I believe these three elements are the mortal enemies of creativity, which is the key ingredient that will assure the health and perdurability of this television genre.

On Sunday, November 4, the Spanish newspaper El País published a story titled Hay 'feas' por todo el mundo (There are 'uglies' all over the world, describing the characteristics and success of the different remakes of Yo soy Betty, la Fea, underscoring the local differences of each of these "Bettys."

This news story generated in me two reflections:

Reflection 1.- The success of Fernando Gaitán's telenovela suggests that there are universal storylines that work everywhere. At the same time, each of these versions is adapted to the local culture that produces and consumes it. Therefore, even though all these "Bettys" use eyeglasses and sport braces, each one of them is a different version that is culturally acceptable in the social formation that consumes it. (Following are: Lisa-Germany, Katia-Russia, Jassi-India, Betty-USA, Lotte-Neatherlands, Letty-Mexico, Bea-Spain and Maria Asximi-Greece)

The success of Betty and its versions begs the question of whether her global success is due to the universal nature of the tale of the Ugly Duckling, or if it's because its versions are tailored to each culture. This question underlines one of the facets of the local-global debate that permeates the telenovela both as an industry and a form of art and ertaintainment.

Reflection 2.- These days the number 120 is frequently used as the standard number of episodes for a telenovela. There is such strength in this standard that many often lose sight of the fact that some stories cannot or should not be told in 120 episodes. As I read the article in El País, I couldn't help noticing that these versions of Betty are way longer than 120 episodes: Spain (300+ episodes), Germany (364), India (556), Russia (700). This presents an interesting paradox: The 120-episode standard is frequently use to gauge the "export-ability" of a telenovela. The argument is that only 120-episode telenovelas sell well in non-Latin American countries. However, when these cultures produce their own telenovelas, they are longer. What is the meaning of this apparent contradiction?

In sum, the success of Betty and its different remakes suggests a set of interesting questions re: the universal quality of storylines and their ideal length, measured in episodes, and highlights some of the paradoxes and tensions inherent to the genre.