Most of us have indulged, at one time or another, in the guilty pleasures of soap opera viewing.
With their outlandish plots and characterizations that typify the genre of beautiful but evil villains, handsome men and innocent virgins, we feel free to indulge in the silliness of the Hollywood style soap because the trials and tribulations of the characters on the screen bear so little resemblance to the realties of our own lives.
But for many across the globe, the oft thought frivolous medium of soap opera plays a very real role in influencing their day to day lives on a much more significant scale.
Enter the telenovela.
In simple terms, a telenovela is the term used to describe Spanish and Portuguese television serials derived from the terms tele short for television and novela (“novel”).
These programs have traditionally been compared to English language soap operas and even though the two genres share some characteristics and similar roots, the telenovela , over the last 40 years, has evolved into a genre with its own unique set of characteristics.
Telenovelas in most Latin American countries are aired in prime-time six days a week, attract a broad audience across age and gender lines, and command the highest advertising rates. They last about six months before coming to a climactic close.
The global appeal of telenovelas is undisputed, with hundreds of millions of people watching them around the world on a daily basis. And viewer numbers are only increasing.
According to social theorist Thomas Tufte, “the impact and role of telenovela in society has been seen time and time again….articulating debate (encouraging) social movement and leading to legal initiatives and changes of laws …all factors creating significant impact on societal development.”
Not surprisingly, as times have changed, so have the characterizations and levels of influence of these popular entertainment vehicles.
During the early phases of their evolution in Latin American, until the mid-1960s, most telenovelas relied on conventional melodramatic narratives in which the romantic couple confronted opposition to their staying together.
As the genre progressed in different nations at different rhythms they it became more attuned to local culture. Today’s telenovela heroines, however, fight for gender equality, for the right to use birth control and to overcome addiction or stigma – things unheard of in Latin American soap operas of the past where conventional generic formulas were the order of the day.
The cult of the telenovela, however, is no recent phenomenon.
The first of their kind were produced in Brazil, Cuba and Mexico with Sua vida me pertence (Your life belongs to me, Brazil, 1950): Senderos de amor (Love paths, Cuba, 1951) and Ángeles de la calle (Angels from the street, Mexico 1951). All were enormously popular and followed conventional soap opera narrative trends.
Then, in the mid-1960s, Miguel Sabido, (a Mexican TV scriptwriter and the key individual credited with pioneering the medium of the telenovela as an agent of social and cultural change) was the first to take notice of the social effects of a progressive Peruvian telenovela entitled Simplemente Maria (Just Simple Mary).
With a radical storyline of a simple Peruvian country woman who moves to the city, becomes pregnant, is betrayed and must carry and give birth to her baby alone, the central character of Simple Maria shattered existing stereotype by taking control of her own destiny in a patriarchal world.
After the show aired in Peru in 1969 there was a marked increase in enrollment in classes for literacy and sewing, the two things that helped Maria overcome the trials and tribulations of her troubled life.
Unintentionally, Simply Maria had produced social change and Sabido was keen to capitalize on this untapped well of potential.
Observing this previously unheard of phenomenon, Sabido, a former vice-president of the Mexican network Televisa, saw a chance to instruct and inspire millions. He forged ahead to produce a series of seven programs between 1975 and 1978 that combined education and entertainment.
And thus the telenovela truly came into its own.
When asked about the initial impetus behind his groundbreaking endeavours , now known as the Sabido Method he explained: “My intention was to have commercial television produce social benefits through telenovelas, which are viewed by the very people who most need to become better informed. I wanted to provide those viewers with the tools they need to improve their own lives.”
Noted Latin American screenwriter Gloria Perez, one of the key creative figures in the telenovela industry, commented on her belief that while telenovelas cannot singlehandedly solve social problems, they can make a significant contribution to the lives of those who watch them. “When telenovelas spark national interest, organizations working on the same issues (can) take advantage of the heightened interest and carry out public-awareness campaigns,” she said.
Examples of the societal impact and influence of the telenovela abound. In Kenya in 1987, the telenovela Tushauriane (Let’s Talk About It) and the radio program Ushikwapo Shikamana (If Assisted, Assist Yourself) were aired with the aim of getting men to be more openminded about their wives’ practicing family planning.
They became two of the most popular shows on Voice of Kenya. By their conclusions, contraceptive use had increased some 58 percent in the country, and the average family size considered as ideal among Kenyans had declined from six children to four.
Officials from Brazil’s Ministry of Health acknowledged that the theme of drug addiction in TV Globo’s el clon (The Clone) in 2001 had done more for the prevention and treatment of drug dependency than many government campaigns.
Welfare organization Population Communications International (PCI) jumped onto the telenovela bandwagon when it realized their influence. The group now works closely with program developers to target particular cultures that it sees as needing assistance with population control issues.
And in more recent times, as pointed out by cultural commntator Patricia Aufderheide, current “telenovelas in Brazil have dealt with bureaucratic corruption, single motherhood and the environment; class differences are foregrounded in Mexican novelas (while) Cuba’s novelas are bitingly topical as well as ideologically correct.”
Further evidence of the forms enduring popularity and pioneering reach was the Third World Summit of the Telenovela and Fiction Industry, held last year in Madrid. A record number of key industry figures from around the globe attended the event to discuss future growth in their burgeoning industry. The 2006 summit, scheduled for October, is expected to attract even greater attention.
Perhaps the last word on the matter belongs to Sabido: “Television teaches. If it didn’t there would be no commercials on the screen because advertisers want people to learn a behaviour, to learn to buy their products….TV can also teach people to plan their families, fight poverty continue studying as adults, acre for nature and respect their own bodies…we should use TV to save life on earth.”