Never Forget You

The Americanization of the telenovela: in Spanish, in Miami

Of course, the owner of a neighboring ranch — the often-shirtless and sweat-sprayed Diego, good with both horses and women, and conveniently an enemy of the Monteros — notices the new domestic and immediately falls in love with her. As you'd expect, the Victoria-Diego coupling is thwarted for more than 100 episodes. The Isabel-Alejandro-Patricio-Carolina drama is only a subplot.

The script makes no suggestion that they are immigrants, or even that some Miamians might speak English. The American flag makes nary an appearance, nor do green cards, immigration offices, or Gloria Estefan. Miami is only a scenic backdrop. (Telemundo, the Miami-based network, is more explicit in its immigrant appeal. It has published a guide with tips about work permits and citizenship, and in El Alma Herida (The Injured Soul), clips of a speech George W. Bush gave on immigration made their way into a story.)

Rivero is not worried that the lack of nationality — or reality — in his novelas may be disorienting. He says viewers tune in to telenovelas to escape the daily grind. He contends there are but 32 dramatic plots that cover everything from Shakespeare to the Brothers Grimm: the scheming bastard son of Much Ado About Nothing; the love that blossoms between rival families of Romeo and Juliet; the Cinderella-stepmother paradigm; the unjustly murdered protagonist who returns from the dead of Hamlet; the vain King Lear-ish father; the wasted, crazy Ophelia.... "It's the same as chess," he posits. "You have 32 pieces, and with the 32 pieces and one board, you can make millions of games. The novela works the same way."

Celebrating at the Olvidarte Jamás wrap party, 
from left: Daniel Elbittar, Sonya Smith, Gabriel Porras, 
Martha J. López, and Paulo Quevado
Celebrating at the Olvidarte Jamás wrap party, from left: Daniel Elbittar, Sonya Smith, Gabriel Porras, Martha J. López, and Paulo Quevado
Venevision Production's Doral headquarters
Venevision Production's Doral headquarters

What modernizes the story is mere details, Rivero points out. "It's like the technology of television itself," he points out. "Years ago, the chapters of a telenovela had 20 or 30 scenes an hour. Now they have 50 or 60."

But the plots, he insists, remain the same. "Life doesn't change either," he muses. "People throughout history resemble one another: Simón Bolívar is a repetition of Napoleon. Manuelita Sáenz, who was the libertador Bolívar's lover, is comparable to Napoleon's Josephine — she wasn't his wife either."

The Latin American telenovela is arguably the most popular form of entertainment on the planet. Worldwide audiences are estimated in the hundreds of millions at any given moment. Dubbed or subtitled, the soaps are exported from Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, and the United States to more than 100 countries, where they often command whopping shares of the viewing audience's attention.

In Brazil, soccer games air at night on Globo, the country's largest network, but only after the 9:00 p.m. novela. For a particularly popular series, like last year's Senhora do Destino (Her Own Destiny), average audience shares climb as high as 76 percent of viewers in a country of 170 million people.

In 1997 the U.S. State Department had to intervene when a Bosnian Serb faction commandeered a television station that had been airing a Venezuelan soap called Kassandra. The takeover left the station with no network feed, and no novela. Diplomats asked that Miami distributor Coral Pictures donate all 150 episodes, believing that cancellation would cause civil unrest.

Last year, some authorities attributed an enormous increase in Brazilians illegally crossing into the U.S. via Mexico to the commercial success of the Globo-produced América. "Soap Opera Lures Brazilians to United States," was the headline of one syndicated Reuters article — and this in spite of a scene in the show that depicted Texas border patrol agents shooting across the Rio Grande at immigrants. In fiscal year 2004, when Mexico first waived visa requirements for Brazilians, the U.S. border patrol apprehended 886 Brazilians. In 2005, when América aired, that number reached almost 30,000. (The novela's heroine ends up in Miami, by the way.)

In fact, says Peel of the Miami-Dade film office, though the U.S. is the largest television market in the world, it is one of the very few that has never embraced telenovelas in its official language. When Peel's office made plans to host a group of Chinese television executives, he says, "One of the things they were interested in was trying to produce telenovelas." A Brazilian novela from 1976 called Escrava Isaura (Isaura the Slave), the story of a white slave girl set in the Nineteenth Century, is said to be one of the most popular television programs ever shown in China.

Latin telenovelas differ greatly from U.S. soaps. They generally last between only 120 and 250 episodes and air every weekday for about six months. There's almost always a satisfying resolution. In the U.S., they are the one bright spot in the increasingly dismal world of network broadcasting. In summer 2005, ratings fell for all of the six major English-language U.S. broadcasters. But Univision experienced a ratings increase of 23 percent among 18- to 49-year-olds. The network had an average of 3.5 million viewers — more than TNT, UPN, or the WB.

Univision is the fifth most-watched network overall, and it airs at least four telenovelas each weekday, including slots at 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. — the most lucrative hours. What was its prime-time programming five nights a week last summer? La Madrastra (The Stepmother), a Televisa novela about a Mexican woman wrongly convicted of a murder and exiled to Aruba. Many years later, she returns to Mexico, where she vows to find the real killer. But she must also reconnect with the children she barely knows — and, of course, fall in love.

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