(I apologize to my English-only readers because all the links in this post go to texts in Spanish).
Like most things in life, telenovelas generate a variety of opinions. What some think is great, others believe is awful. More so in a tv genre that represents a true paradox: It's watched all over the world, and is still despised by many. Complicating things even more is the fact that telenovelas come in different writing and acting styles/qualities. Their production values are also diverse and highly dependent on networks' budgets and countries' political and economic conditions.
Another factor that influences the different likes and dislikes regarding telenovelas is that not every country is exposed to the same telenovelas. The offer they receive depends on the distributors' assumptions about what the public wants to watch. And those assumptions are often laden with underestimation of the audience.
I must also mention that there is no consensus regarding the definition of "success": High ratings in the country of origin? Number of countries that bought the telenovela? Number of countries where it had high ratings? Number of countries where it's still remembered? Influence in the social formation? Influence in the telenovela genre?
We can find an excellent example of this diversity in the post (and comments it generated) in television blog Espoiler, associated to Spain's daily El Pais and written by Hernán Casciari.
And, of course, the Internet is the locus of incredible contrasts. See how interesting is the range of opinions and comments we can find about Venezuelan telenovela Arroz Con Leche:
Plus the contrasts between negative opinions about this telenovela and the comments of those audience members who depend on youtube to be able to watch it.
The only sure thing about telenovelas is that there is no consensus about them.
Through the years I've been studying telenovelas I've read my share of pages and authors about the topic. Here are my translations of some of my favorite quotes about this TV genre. These are my favorites because they illuminate with honesty and intelligence the intrinsic codes of the "show of sentiments" (Cabrujas):
Because it's so quotidian, because we watch it on television, we don't ask where does it come from, where is it grounded, what are its conceptualizations, what is there that is universal and human?
--Cabrujas, José Ignacio (2002). Y Latinoamérica inventó la telenovela. Caracas: Alfadil.
Telenovelas are part of Latin America's sentimental education.
--Gaitán, Fernando (2006). Interviewed in Los Imposibles: conversaciones al borde de un micrófono. Caracas: Aguilar.
The writers are the hidden protagonists of a telenovela, even though the majority of viewers don't know their faces or read about the decor of their homes in the entertainment magazines. It is the writer who defines the fate of the characters that gather multitudes in front of the TV screen on a daily basis.
--Alvarez, Valentina (2007). Lágrimas a pedido: así se escribe una telenovela. Caracas: Alfa.
It is true that a telenovela is a carrousel of melodramatic clichés. But it is also true that, as Umberto Eco would say, two clichés produce laughter, but 100 are moving.
--Vilches, Lorenzo (1997). La fuerza de los sentimientos. En E. Verón y L. Escudero Ch. (comps.) Telenovela: ficción popular y mutaciones culturales. Barcelona: Gedisa.
A telenovela is a "Great Love Story" administered in easy installments.
--Espada, Carolina (2004). La telenovela en Venezuela. Caracas: Fundación Bigott.
He or she who places words in the gut of a telenovela knows this very well: love without rating doesn't last.
--Barrera Tyszka, Alberto (2002). Desde las tripas de un culebrón. Revista Bigott.
This isn't a genre, like film, that goes from the heads of the writer and producer to the head of the spectator. Here, it goes from heart to heart, from gut to gut. And when the spectator's heart starts to get cold, it's time to twist the storyline.
--Gaitán, Fernando (2006). Interview in Los Imposibles: conversaciones al borde de un micrófono. Caracas: Aguilar.
The spectator know what's going to happen. But, I still have to surprise her or him when it finally happens.
--César Miguel Rondón in Lágrimas a Pedido de Valentina Alvarez. Caracas: Alfa.
This job, of course, is filled with failed attempts. There are many dignified intentions that never made it. But, there is only one possible commandment: to insist. This is why I don't accept the argument that says that telenovelas can't be improved, that they have a chemical formula that cannot be corrected, that it needs a high dose of stupidity. Every genre has a process and an evolution. It would be easier to resign ourselves to the headstrong ignorance and proverbial lack of risk of our television executives.
--Padrón, Leonardo (2002). La telenovela: ¿género literario del siglo XXI? Revista Bigott.
But, what kind of love are we talking about in a telenovela? We're talking about a love that isn't like ours, but still resembles it. Its apparent incoherence and unreal nature can also be its coherence and realism. The sense of truth and falseness in a telenovela is only given by its ability to move its audience. What is real is what is deeply unreal, what is felt.
--Barrera Tyszka, Alberto (2007). Una intimidad. Prologue to Lágrimas a Pedido de Valentina Alvarez. Caracas: Alfa.
Venezuelan television can now change, redoing what already exists. The important thing is that its roots dip into the humus of popular culture as it is, with its preferences and trends, that it feels passionate about its past, and that it doesn't avoid its creative spontaneity. Only in this way will we be able to have the lyricism of the intimate, the daring of liberty and the value of truth.
--Rondón, Alí E. (2006). Medio siglo de besos y querellas. Caracas: Alfa.
But whatever is the path for telenovelas, they have the ability to reveal the cartography of both feelings and social tensions, cultural imagination, and the secret and explicit aspirations of those who follow them with fervor.
--Martín-Barbero, Jesús y Rey, Germán (1999). Los ejercicios del ver: hegemonía audiovisual y ficción televisiva. Barcelona: Gedisa.
The semester began and with it my lack of time to write. This term I'm teaching Graphics Communication and a doctoral seminar on Qualitative Research Methods. At the same time, I continue the analysis phase of telenovela Ciudad Bendita. Both the analysis and writing stages of any research study are lonely and particularly introspective times for a researcher.
In this brief post I want to highlight three fascinating interviews that appeared in the message board TVVI (TV Venezolana e Internacional). In these interviews, the questions were asked by board participants. I've written before about the quality range regarding discussion and information that we can find in Internet message boards.
These interviews are jewels worth reading since exchanges between the audience and telenovela writers are rare. And even though the quality and tone of the questions have a wide range, we can find facets of these writers that we probably didn't know:
Pilar Romero (Mi Prima Ciela, Elizabeth, Maite, Toda Mujer, Drama de Amor en el Bloque 6, Días de Infamia)
Alberto Barrera (Aunque Mal Paguen, Géminis, Nada Personal, Demasiado Corazón, La Calle de las Novias)
Leonardo Padrón (Amores de Fin de Siglo, Contra Viento y Marea, El País de las Mujeres, Amantes de Luna Llena, Cosita Rica, Ciudad Bendita)
When we study telenovelas, it's important to examine the entertainment press. Quality-wise, these reports have a huge range in the Venezuelan press. We can find smart and respectful interviews, and analysis that incite reflection. But, we can also encounter speculations without any connection to reality and "analyses" that read more like blatant propaganda or as ingredients of a vendetta, than as responsible criticism.
Because of the latter, many people disregard the entertainment press as plain gossip and "not real journalism." However, in the entertainment world this press is key to promote artists' work and performances, and encourage societal reflection. In the telenovela world, in particular, press and message boards continuously interact. Press reports are posted and commented in message boards. And, frequently, the press publishes information posted on the boards by some particularly well informed participants. For all these, I believe that the entertainment press should strive for objectivity and accuracy, the standards of excellent journalism. Unfortunately it isn't always so.
I'm not easily surprised by the press' speculations. I've seen my share of false news. (My favorite is from June 5, 2006, when pseudonym Chepa Candela wrote that actress Marisa Román had fallen from a horse while taping Ciudad Bendita, an urban telenovela without any horses!)
Recently I've been following a case that illustrates quite well how speculations and lies published repeatedly in the press can become "truths" in the eyes of its readers.
On November 29 of last year, Jesús Bustindui published in daily El Mundo:
The protagonists for Leonardo Padrón's new telenovela will be Marisa Román and Josué Villaé. The story is similar to El país de las mujeres, but men are victims of love. They say that he already turned in three episodes...
Very soon the "information" was repeated by other outlets:
…Leonardo Padrón, has his eyes on JOSUÉ VILLAÉ, as the protagonist of his new telenovela...(Chepa Candela, Diario 2001, Dic. 13, 2007).
On January 4th, the respected daily El Universal published a note stating that actors Roque Valero and Daniela Alvarado would be Padrón's protagonists:
Telenovela writer Leonardo Padrón hasn't finished yet typing his new love story, but he already knows that the protagonists will be Daniela Alvarado and singer-actor
The next days, other writers echoed this "information:" El Sepulturero, Panorama, Chepa Candela, etc. In the message boards, the "news" were talked about as a fact. Some participants even mentioned that it was most probably true because El Universal had published it. Other participants published polls about Valero and Alvarado as Padrón's new protagonists.
Finally, on January 9th, journalist Blanca González interviewed the source, Leonardo Padrón, who said he had not written a single word of his telenovela yet, nor had he chosen his protagonists. He was specific in his criticism of some reporters who had ventured that he had turned in three episodes already and that his novela was similar to a previous one.
I thought this would stop all speculations. However, the very next day on the same daily El Mundo, Jesús Bustindui, the same journalist who first wrote about Padrón turning in three episodes, etc, further speculated about Padrón's cast:
Leonardo Padrón is considering actress Pierina España for a special cameo in the first episode of his next telenovela. Apparently, she is willing to do it, even without any monetary compensation. In this initial episode we could also possibly see first actress Bárbara Teyde in only one scene. Both these actresses have many years in retirement.
Meanwhile, William Guzmán, the writer behind the pseudonym Chepa Candela, wrote in his column "Así es el Rollo":
Josué Villaé is surprised to be singled out in several columns as one of Leonardo Padrón's new protagonists...
The problem is that one of those "several columns" is Chepa Candela, written by William Guzmán, himself...
Our entertainment press has to be better than this...
A couple of months ago I was interviewed by Claudia Quintero from the radio show Nuevos Horizontes (New Horizons), which is supported by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the show's webpage we read that "the purpose of this radio program is to provide critical information and educational orientation to the Latino immigrant population in the United States, and those audiences interested in learning more about emerging Latino issues and improving their Spanish language listening skills."
I was interviewed about telenovelas. Excerpts from the interview will appear in two separate editions of Nuevos Horizontes dedicated to this topic. The first edition just aired and the second one will be broadcast in February.
The first story touched on several important aspects of this paradoxical television genre that can be both changing and static at the same time: Why are there different styles of telenovelas depending on their producing country? Which is the style that currently dominates the market? Why are Cinderella-type stories still successful?
If you're interested in listening to the show, click here. (The show is in Spanish. It's eight minutes long, well organized and spiced with wonderful original audio from classic telenovelas from the 70s and 80s).
-In soap operas we can see a couple evolve through time. With few exceptions (for example, Venezuelan telenovelas Ligia Elena and Nacho), in the telenovela world we can see a couple of actors repeat, but only playing different characters. Following are a couple of pictures of the most famous couple in U.S. soap opera history, Luke and Laura, on their wedding day in 1981 and in 2006 when they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.
(An interesting bit of information about Luke and Laura: in a night in which he's drunk and believes he will be killed by the mob, Luke rapes Laura, the woman he's in love with and who was married at the time. After some twists of the plot, Laura falls in love with Luke. The rape occurred in 1979 and by the summer of 1980, Luke and Laura have become the most famous romantic couple in soap opera history. This happens in U.S. TV three years before telenovela Leonela airs in Venezuela. I don't want to suggest that Leonela was inspired in Luke and Laura's storyline. It's impossible to know. But, I've always been amazed that this parallelism is never mentioned or discussed. That's how separate the soap opera and telenovela worlds are).
- It's relatively common in soap operas that a character seemingly "dies" (in an accident, but they never find his/her body), only to reappear a few years later. Both Luke and Laura have disappeared at times from General Hospital: "deaths", vanishing in some fog, long trips, etc.
- Sometimes a soap opera character must be "recast". In other words, re-assigned to a different actor. These two occurrences ("deaths" and "recasting") are consequences of the fact that soap opera actors' contracts cannot be for the soap opera's duration (again, because soap operas don't end). This is a huge difference with telenovelas, where recasting is rare and the undesirable consequence of a misfortune: an actor's illness or accidental death. Hence, in soap operas, when a contract isn't renewed, it becomes necessary to eliminate or recast the character. For example, Carly in General Hospital has been played by at least three different female actors: Sarah Brown, Tamara Braun y Laura Wright.
- In soap operas we can also witness how children grow up on our television screens. Such is Kimberly McCullough's case. She has played Robin Scorpio in General Hospital since she was a little girl.
- In telenovelas we see stories based on classics such as Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet and The Count of Montecristo. In soap operas, every few years stories are recycled: a murder and its respective Perry Mason kind of trial where we finally find out "who done it," an addiction plot (alcochol, drugs, pain killers), a seemingly incurable illness, an accident that changes a character's personality, etc.
- When you watch a soap opera for several years, you will see multiple permutations of romantic couples. In a period of three years, a character can fall in love with 2-3 different people and have "hot" relationships with them. This never happens in telenovelas because their storylines, in general, are more faithful to their original arguments and plots. Here are pictures of some of Erica Kane's different weddings in All My Children.
- In soap operas holidays are celebrated in real time. That is, Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year and the Fourth of July are celebrated on those same days. In that sense, soap operas are inextricably linked to the U.S. culture that produces them. These are shows that aren't produced for the international market. This is one of the reasons why the average person from the U.S. perceives soap operas as more realistic than telenovelas. (Another important reason is that there is generalized ignorance regarding what a telenovela really is. A stereotypical view is prevalent in the U.S.)
One last caveat: in these two posts about telenovelas and soap operas, I've underscored U.S.-made soaps because this is the country where I live. But, there are also successful, famous and lengthy soap operas made in the U.K. and Australia.
Below, a couple of videos of famous couples. The first is a collage about General Hospital's Luke and Laura. (Tony Geary y Genie Francis). The second video is the final scene of one of telenovelas' most talked about couples: Juan and Mónica, Eduardo Palomo and Edith González, in Corazón Salvaje.
Maybe the question that I've answered more times here in the U.S. is about the differences between soap operas and telenovelas. Until recently, it was unavoidable to begin my conference presentations by briefly explaining the similarities and differences between these shows.
In my telenovelas class I've also had to explain the different aspects of telenovelas by comparing them with soap operas, which are well known here in the U.S. I like watching people's faces when I explain that telenovelas have a finite number of episodes and an end. My U.S. interlocutors find this very strange.
Recently, however, I had the opposite experience: to define the soap opera before an audience that only knows telenovelas. For me, a Venezuelan in the U.S. academe who's used to having to "explain" her culture using comparisons and contrasts with the U.S. culture, it was fascinating to go through the inverse process. I discovered that for those who have grown watching and knowing telenovelas, the soap opera, with its unlimited number of episodes, is quite "exotic."
Following is the first of two installments of my version of the similarities and differences between telenovelas and soap operas.
Both telenovelas and soap operas are serial melodramatic genres pitched to popular audiences. In both emotions provide the basis of the spectacle. Also, both are broadcast daily during the week. They aren't governed by the "seasons" system like sitcoms and series are. Both have multiple trade publications, discussion boards, blogs and websites dedicated to them. More importantly, these genres share the paradox of being successful and disdained at the same time.
Nonetheless, there are important differences between them:
- Telenovelas have a finite number of episodes. Therefore, the audience expects a conclusion. The soap opera is designed without an end. For instance, General Hospital has been on the air, without interruption every day at 3 p.m. (ET) since 1963.
- Telenovelas are broadcast both in the afternoon block and in prime time. Soap operas are broadcast in the networks only in the afternoon block. Hence, telenovela audiences are comprised of women and men of all socioeconomic leveles, ages and occupations. While the soap opera audience is still mainly comprised of women who work at home. (For those who want to watch soap operas at night, there is a cabel channel that broadcasts them throughout the night).
-Telenovelas determine the "star system" in Latin America (see a related post). In the U.S. most soap opera actors are perceived as "second class" performers.
-In consequence, most of the Latin American actors that have made it to Hollywood come from the telenovela industry. In contrast, it's a rare event that a soap opera actor transitions well to Hollywood. (A few important exceptions are: Meg Ryan (As the World Turns), Mark Hamill (General Hospital), Demi Moore (General Hospital).
TO BE CONTINUED...