Romancing the Globe

Latin American soap operas have circled the globe and made a splash in places as far flung as Poland, Russia, and Indonesia. Their secret? Plotlines that keep the poor and underprivileged glued to their sets. Now these surprising Latin exports are part of the global cultural establishment -- and taking on Hollywood heavyweights.

It was too late for Marimar. By the time she found out that her long-lost father wanted to leave her his vast fortune, she had fallen hopelessly in love with Sergio. The object of her affection was handsome, young, and rich -- and the same man who had saved her from the lecherous Nicandro. But, sadly for Marimar, her lover's intentions were not pure; Sergio was using her to get back at his own family.

It was too late for Marimar. By the time she found out that her long-lost father wanted to leave her his vast fortune, she had fallen hopelessly in love with Sergio. The object of her affection was handsome, young, and rich — and the same man who had saved her from the lecherous Nicandro. But, sadly for Marimar, her lover’s intentions were not pure; Sergio was using her to get back at his own family.

Marimar’s saga, captured in the eponymous Latin American soap opera, kept millions of people around the world glued to their television sets for 148 emotionally charged episodes. Produced and originally screened in Mexico in 1994, Marimar became a global phenomenon. It helped propel Mexican pop artist Thalia Sodi, who played the lead role, to global stardom. In the Ivory Coast, it was reported that mosques issued the call to prayer early so that an enthralled population wouldn’t miss an episode. When Thalia visited the Philippines, she was received by the president and attracted crowds that rivaled those for the pope.

The success of Marimar is far from unique. Accounts of the global impact of Latin American soap operas, or telenovelas, are now legion. In post-communist Russia, the Mexican hit Los Ricos Tambien Lloran (The Rich Also Cry) became the country’s top-rated show; roughly 70 percent of the Russian population, more than 100 million people, tuned in regularly. Latin American telenovela stars often find themselves mobbed at airports in places as distant as Poland, Indonesia, and Lebanon. In postwar Bosnia, U.S. diplomats intervened to ensure that the Venezuelan show Kassandra could stay on the air in the midst of a tug of war between Bosnian Serb factions for control of the media. In Israel, the Mexican novela Mirada de Mujer (The Gaze of a Woman) was broadcast with both Hebrew and Russian subtitles to ensure that recent Russian immigrants wouldn’t miss an episode. And in the United States, the Latin American shows have become top sellers on Spanish-language networks, which have themselves outpaced English-language networks in some major markets, such as Miami and Los Angeles.

In all, about 2 billion people around the world watch telenovelas. For better or worse, these programs have attained a prominent place in the global marketplace of culture, and their success illuminates one of the back channels of globalization. For those who despair that Hollywood or the American television industry dominates and defines globalization, the telenovela phenomenon suggests that there is still room for the unexpected. Indeed, the success of telenovelas is often celebrated as an example of reverse cultural imperialism or, as one academic memorably called it, "Montezuma’s Revenge."

But the story does not end there. Telenovelas have ridden the currents of cultural globalization to astonishing success. Now, they are experiencing the complications that come with being part of the cultural establishment. They have spawned local imitators, eager to put a familiar face on tried and true story lines. And their success is luring some of the world’s largest entertainment companies.


It is ironic that telenovelas, one of Latin America’s most successful exports, originated in what is now its most closed society: Cuba. But, in fact, the small island-nation played a vital role in launching the genre. At the end of the 19th century, Cuba was still a Spanish colony and cigars were a lucrative export. The budding cigar makers’ guilds achieved a major improvement in working conditions by creating a new job, the lector de tabaco. A worker with a flair for the dramatic would, from a platform in the factory, read novels in installments during the tedious hours of filling, rolling, and shaping tobacco leaves. Nearly all the books were Spanish translations of European social realist novels: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

With the dawn of the radio age, serialized melodrama soon took to the airwaves and became known as culebrones (serpents), an allusion to their habit of extending themselves indefinitely if they captured a big enough audience. It was only a matter of time before the "radio novel" expanded into the visual realms, and exiles from the Cuban Revolution helped transform the burgeoning taste for serialized novels into the modern telenovela. When Fidel Castro stormed to power in 1959, many Cuban producers, directors, actors, and writers scattered to Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and other parts of Latin America. It was a period of cultural ferment throughout the region. "People and scripts moved around Latin America in the 50s and 60s," says Joseph Straubhaar, a communications professor at the University of Texas. "It’s been an export genre for a long time."

After a period of jostling, Televisa in Mexico, Venevisión in Venezuela, and Globo TV in Brazil emerged as the leading producers of telenovelas. During the 1960s, the novelas began to claim the top spots on national television stations. They replaced imported U.S. television shows and movies, turning huge swaths of the population into dedicated viewers. But it was only a partial declaration of cultural independence. U.S. companies sponsored many of the shows and sometimes even had a hand in drafting story lines and themes. Colgate tied a fabulously successful promotion to one of the first Brazilian novelas, Em Busca da Felicidade (In Search of Happiness), and the early Mexican show Senda Prohibida (Forbidden Path) was branded as "your Colgate novela." The persistent corporate influence led many Latin American academics to deride the shows as "agents for the creation of a capitalist and consumerist international global village… engineered by the U.S. and U.S-allied interests," according to Marina Vujnovic, a researcher at the University of Iowa.

Still, telenovelas were always distinct from U.S. soap operas, and most observers now see them as cultural hybrids. Unlike their North American counterparts, telenovelas have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Most air daily for a period of between four and six months and culminate in a climactic episode that rights all wrongs. (In comparison, the U.S. soap opera Guiding Light first aired in 1952 and is now the longest story ever told on television.) A successful show might spawn a spinoff or sequel, but in most cases, audiences must regularly acquaint themselves with new characters and plotlines. And while U.S. soap operas air during daytime hours with women as their target audience, Latin telenovelas are often prime time shows, aimed at the whole family.

Telenovelas share key ingredients with their North American cousins. Romance and intrigue are, of course, never in short supply. "There is always a Cinderella in a novela," says Helena Bernardi, director of marketing and sales for Brazil’s Globo TV. Colombian telenovela producer Patricio Wills describes the genre as "a couple that wants to have a kiss and a writer who doesn’t allow them to for 200 episodes." The physical allure of telenovela casts and the balmy locations where they film haven’t hurt either.

But the context in which the romance, intrigue, and beauty play out is distinct from the soap operas of the United States. "It’s the journey, it’s the struggles, it’s the obstacles," says Ramón Escobar, an executive at the Spanish-language network Telemundo. And often, those obstacles are poverty, class conflict, and institutional instability, something U.S. soaps ignore. "[U.S. soaps] do not have a historical, political, or social framework, like unemployment or inflation," says Globo’s Bernardi. Indeed, one of the leading theories for the global success of novelas is their comfort with characters who are not affluent and are sometimes even poor. The place of struggling women, in particular, is a well-worn telenovela plotline. Simplemente María (Simply Maria), a classic telenovela that has been remade in several Latin American countries, features a poor girl from the countryside who arrives in the city and struggles to make a living as a seamstress. "Simplemente María is the founding myth," says Venezuelan telenovela writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka. "For many years most telenovelas were nothing but variations on its plot and themes."

That focus is not surprising given the poverty that is endemic among Latin American women. Almost half of the 90 million people in the region’s female-headed households live in poverty. Women are more likely than men to fall on hard times, and they are more likely to make up the poorest of the poor. In urban areas, 48 percent of women lack their own income (only 22 percent of men do). And so characters such as Maria are often condemned by the scriptwriters to live in the most extreme poverty until a sudden twist of fate restores them to their rightful place. In many cases, the twist comes in the form of an unexpected inheritance, which is still seen as the way to get rich in most Latin American countries.

Plots that rely on such reversals of fortune resonate in cultures accustomed to economic uncertainty. Latin America is one of the more economically volatile regions in the world. Argentina’s recent history provides ample evidence that losing everything is a persistent worry, even in relatively well-off societies. During that country’s 2001 economic crisis, half the population went to bed as middle-class bank depositors and woke up all but destitute. In this environment, people rarely find succor from the government or the justice system. This institutional weakness in many parts of Latin America may explain why law and order themes — so popular among U.S. viewers — have limited appeal abroad and never took hold in telenovelas.

If novelas often draw on the harsh realities of life in parts of Latin America, their plotlines still generally devolve into sentimental fairy tales. Happy endings are all but certain. The emotion and melodrama of the genre beg the question of whether they are anything more than distractions for the disaffected. Telenovelas endure withering criticism from Latin American elites, who are often embarrassed to see them as one of the region’s most successful cultural exports. Arturo Uslar Pietri, a prominent Venezuelan novelist and essayist, expressed what many Latin American elites still feel when he described telenovelas as "the opium of the poor."

Condemning the genre as a whole, however, glosses over what a tailored commodity it has become. As scripts and templates were swapped and sold within Latin America, local tastes and tolerances came into play. Over time, national producers developed their own distinctive styles that departed from or modified the traditional story lines. Mexican novelas became known for their melodrama. Brazilian novelas leaned toward hard-hitting social realism and even tackled contentious social issues, including biotechnology, sex, drug use, and ethnic relations. It was a style that didn’t always go over well in other parts of the region. The edgy Globo TV novela Angel Malo (Bad Angel) underwent a thorough cleansing before appearing on screens in far more conservative Chile.

As the Latin networks hit their stride in the 1960s and 1970s, they began exporting content to the growing and relatively affluent Latino population in the United States — the richest Hispanics in the world. The U.S.-based network Univision, for example, has imported hundreds of telenovelas from Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. In 2004 alone, it paid $105 million in licensing fees to the Mexican network Televisa. For its part, Brazil’s Globo TV has exported dozens of novelas to networks in Portugal. Culturally, the success of Latin telenovelas with Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking communities was not surprising. But what happened next was a twist worthy of a novela script. Somehow, the often sneered-at melodramas leapt out of their cultural zones and raced around the globe.


When communism fell, television executives in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union faced a crisis. For decades, turning the television dial brought viewers nothing but state-approved programming. In other words, they had no shows that people actually liked to watch. Nor did these former communist-controlled networks have the budgets to purchase U.S. or European programming wholesale.

The makers of telenovelas saw an opportunity. "Telenovela producers were visionary enough to offer [eastern European] stations very good deals," says Patrick Jucaud, general manager of DISCOP, an organization that promotes telenovelas in the region. "These stations didn’t have any money … and Latin American companies were the first ones to help them get started." The quality was relatively high given the price. Telenovelas, after all, attract the top acting talent in Latin America. Rather than being a résumé builder, as is the case with American soaps, a telenovela spot is often the apex of a Latin American actor’s career. And recurring themes — rising from poverty, coping with economic hardship — seemed to resonate in countries struggling to emerge from state socialism. "When you’re looking at countries that are rapidly industrializing, rapidly urbanizing, with all the attendant stresses and strains on the family and personal relationships, something produced in Brazil or Mexico may be a lot more relevant to Russians in the 90s than an American sitcom, which is frothy and all about L.A.," says Straubhaar, the University of Texas professor.

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.

This large-scale expansion into central and eastern Europe represented a new leap forward for the industry. And as international revenue poured in, production at the leading studios became more lavish. In 1995, Brazil’s Globo TV — which claims to have sold telenovelas to more than 120 countries — opened a brand new facility with Hollywood-quality technology. High-end Globo episodes can now cost as much as $100,000. The quality of the programs produced by the telenovela powerhouses has become a principal selling point.

The realization that telenovelas could succeed beyond their cultural spheres ramped up competition in the industry. Production companies that once focused on their national markets found themselves in competition for foreign-market share. Lesser-known telenovela producers dove into the export market in search of fast money, leading to occasional charges of unfair pricing and "dumping" of content. Brazilian and Mexican leaders Globo TV and Televisa, for example, were startled when Argentine and Colombian novelas met with international success.

Some themes covered in telenovelas, to be sure, have fallen flat outside of Latin America. The show Clase 406, for example, touched on issues including drugs and rape. "We could never put it on the air in [eastern Europe] — never. We really tried and we couldn’t," said Claudia Sahab, Televisa’s director of sales for Europe, at a recent industry seminar. The steamy sex scenes in some novelas have roused the censors in more conservative countries, forcing studios to produce edited versions. Program executives in Indonesia pulled the popular show Esmeralda off the air because a particularly devious character bore the name of the prophet Muhammad’s daughter.

Some observers of the industry worry that shows deemed "too local" have been sanitized so as not to risk international revenue streams. But for the major telenovela producers, the domestic market is still the main course, and export revenue is gravy. "[Telenovela producers] get their investment back quickly on the domestic market which allows them to make money on the international markets," says Thomas Tufte, a European academic who studies the industry. The most serious challenge to the dominance of Latin telenovelas is not watered-down content but the hungry new players entering the market.


"Local always wins," is a mantra of the entertainment industry, and producers in eastern Europe, Russia, and Asia are eager to prove it. Whereas five years ago overseas networks gobbled up ready-made telenovelas, many are now dropping that business model in favor of developing their own local productions for export. The Philippine network ABS-CBN, for example, exported its own telenovela-style dramas to Cambodia, Cameroon, Kenya, and Malaysia in 2004. Taiwanese novelas — often called "chinovelas" — have had success throughout Asia and have been particularly popular in the Philippines, where Spanish-language novelas had long ruled. "Now we have something to compare the Spanish novelas to," a Philippine professor told the local press. "These new shows deal with conflicts that Filipinos can relate to, like going out with friends and getting into trouble."

Some small networks in eastern Europe have opted to simply hire away scriptwriters from Latin America. Alicia Carvajal, who worked as a telenovela writer and director for almost 20 years, was stunned when the Croatian network HTV offered her a job. "Why me?" she asked. "I don’t even speak Croatian!" But her success with the hit show La Duda (Doubt) convinced Croatian executives that she did speak the international language of melodrama. And so Carvajal, still based in Mexico City, went to work on Villa Maria, a show touching on the fall of communism in the former Yugoslavia. It aired simultaneously in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia and has already netted several honors.

In some cases, established Latin American producers enter into coproductions with local studios in an effort to foster local influences without forfeiting profits entirely. Brazil’s Globo, for example, has reportedly considered forging ties with Indian producers, creating the possibility of an alliance between the developing world’s two largest entertainment industries. In other cases, outside production companies pay licensing fees for the rights to a script, which can be adapted to the tastes of the local audience. The Colombian megahit Betty la Fea (Betty the Ugly), for example, caught the eye of Michael Grindon, president of Sony Pictures Television International. He persuaded Sony’s Hindi channel to license the program and air a local version. According to Nyay Bhushan, an Indian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, the remake "has spawned a merchandising and marketing bonanza." Sony also teamed up with a Russian studio to produce Poor Anastasia, based loosely on Betty la Fea.

Sony’s emergence as a player in the telenovela world heralds the arrival of the entertainment industry’s big guns — and a potentially important shift of cultural flows. "The biggest and most important producers in the world have become interested in the telenovela," says Carlos Bardasano, vice president of the Cisneros Group and president of Venevisión Continental. No longer willing to see Latin American production studios reap all the profits, major conglomerates have begun to produce their own telenovelas. In 2003, European giant FremantleMedia teamed up with NBC-owned Telemundo to film La Ley de Silencio (The Law of Silence) in Houston. Telemundo, the second largest Spanish-language network in the United States, has decided against importing shows from Latin America (as its competitor Univision does). "Now [telenovelas] move north to south," says Ramón Escobar, the Telemundo executive. "That’s creating a tremendous amount of competition in the international market." The network is banking on the multinational flavor of its shows — it uses actors from all over Latin America — and the glimpses of Latino life in the United States that it can offer. Another hint that the cultural currents may be shifting is the success of ABC’s Desperate Housewives in parts of Latin America. Argentine and Chilean networks are vying to make local versions of its provocative premise, and a half dozen other regional networks may soon follow.

For the moment, U.S. and European media conglomerates are still minor characters. Telemundo’s novelas, for example, have not yet seriously challenged the Mexican novelas shown on Univision. Globo TV’s reputation as the world leader in high-quality telenovelas is undiminished. But the industry is changing fast, and the entrance of the world’s media giants into the fray may soon test the theory that the global appeal of telenovelas derives from the economic and cultural environment in which they were born. Is there really something unique about the Latin American experience — or can their success be duplicated by Hollywood studios? Will the Latin American networks maintain their hard-won empire, or will the rich relatives from abroad snatch away their success? Will the torrid affair between novelas and Czechs, Filipinos, and Russians continue? Or will the long-distance relationship fall apart? The story, as always, is to be continued.

Ibsen Martínez is a Venezuelan columnist and playwright.

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