SOAP BOX

Across the world television se­ri­als tell the same sudsy sto­ries. Graeme Blun­dell sets the scene and Re­view s for­eign cor­re­spon­dents re­port

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

ROBERT LUSETICH Los An­ge­les

HIS­PANIC te­len­ov­e­las share many — but, cru­cially, not all — of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of soap op­eras across the world. It does not re­quire a PhD in Joycean im­agery to de­ci­pher the in­tri­ca­cies — such as they are — of the nov­e­las, which are pop­u­lar with women in Mex­ico, the US and through­out South Amer­ica, es­pe­cially in Brazil, where they en­joy huge rat­ings.

Where they depart from soaps such as Coro­na­tion Street , Neigh­bours and Days of Our Lives is that they al­ways have a pre­de­ter­mined length with a be­gin­ning, mid­dle and end. They do not drift on aim­lessly for years, though once one fin­ishes — typ­i­cally af­ter six months of five nights a week air­ing — an­other with a sim­i­lar plot and char­ac­ters be­gins.

The con­tin­ued suc­cess of the nov­e­las is stag­ger­ing be­cause vet­eran view­ers know pre­cisely how the story un­folds from vir­tu­ally the first scene.

‘‘ The plot is al­ways the same,’’ Pa­tri­cio Wills, who runs de­vel­op­ment at the US Span­ish­language Tele­mu­ndo net­work, has said. ‘‘ In the first three min­utes of the first episode the viewer al­ready knows the nov­ela will end with that same cou­ple kiss­ing each other. A te­len­ov­ela is all about a cou­ple who wants to kiss and a scriptwriter who stands in their way for 150 episodes.’’

For years, the nov­ela’s demise was pre­dicted in the US on the as­sump­tion that once im­mi­grants as­sim­i­lated, they would leave be­hind the ways of their na­tive lands. Not only has that not oc­curred, but their chil­dren have also be­come ad­dicts. By 2010, it is es­ti­mated nearly 30 mil­lion US res­i­dents will speak Span­ish at home, and with this in mind US pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies have stopped just im­port­ing nov­e­las and started mak­ing their own.

The char­ac­ter­is­tics of te­len­ov­e­las de­pend on where they are made. Brazil’s are of­ten racier, con­tain­ing nu­dity, than Mex­ico’s, which tend to be quite old- fash­ioned in their ideas.

The story- lines of­ten in­volve a beau­ti­ful girl from a poor fam­ily who falls in love with the scion of a wealthy clan, and the lovers’ strug­gle to get to­gether de­spite the evil do­ings of his rich bitch girl­friend and his dis­ap­prov­ing mother. In the end, true love reigns — al­ways — and, for good mea­sure, it is typ­i­cally dis­cov­ered that the poor girl’s real par­ents are fab­u­lously rich them­selves.

‘‘ If you give it a chance, the te­len­ov­ela will take you and grab you. The per­son who has not been hooked by a te­len­ov­ela has not re­ally sat down to watch one,’’ says Carolina Acosta- Alzuru, a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia, who stud­ies the genre.

There have been at­tempts — mostly failed — to trans­late the nov­ela into English. The pop­u­lar Colom­bian se­ries Yo soy Betty, la Fea ( I am Betty, the Ugly) has mor­phed into the com­edy hit Ugly Betty , though it has strayed from the nov­ela for­mat. The NBC net­work is go­ing to give it an­other try, though it may need an al­ter­na­tive ti­tle for an­other Colom­bian hit, With­out Breasts There is No Par­adise .

ROWAN CAL­LICK Bei­jing

IN China the rat­ings win­ner on China Cen­tral Television is al­ways the 7pm news. This is hardly sur­pris­ing, as ev­ery big sta­tion in the coun­try is re­quired to run it. But next to the news the most pop­u­lar shows are the 40- minute soaps that screen Mon­day to Fri­day at 8pm. While they usu­ally run for about two months, the most suc­cess­ful are re­played time and again.

Im­ports from Hong Kong, Tai­wan and es­pe­cially South Korea are pop­u­lar but don’t dom­i­nate the rat­ings. They can’t, given the fact the Gov­ern­ment ul­ti­mately owns all the elec­tronic me­dia in China and that Bei­jing has a pol­icy to pre­serve ‘‘ golden view­ing’’ prime time for do­mes­tic ma­te­rial. This is good for the risk­tak­ing private pro­duc­ers who dom­i­nate China’s soap scene.

His­tor­i­cal sub­jects used to make the most suc­cess­ful soaps, but the five hits of 2007 are all set in the present. Like most lead­ing soaps the hottest, Sol­dier Sor­tie , was made pri­vately by in­vestors. The big state- owned broad­cast­ing com­pa­nies are ner­vous about the risks in­volved in shoot­ing so many episodes.

Sol­dier Sor­tie is the story of Xu San­dong, whose char­ac­ter is sent to join the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army to ‘‘ make a man out of him’’. While his fel­low sol­diers are idle, Xu sets out to turn him­self into a top sol­dier and — guess what? — he suc­ceeds.

Un­usu­ally, this soap had no love an­gle even pe­riph­eral to the main plot and it did not get a run on CCTV. But it was a huge hit on many pro­vin­cial net­works. Many have re­played the whole se­ries as many as seven times, with DVDs of the show sell­ing in the hun­dreds of thou­sands.

An­other big hit of 2007 was Gold Mar­riage . It’s the story of a 1950s mar­riage un­der strain, first be­cause the hus­band’s mother lives with the new­ly­weds, and also be­cause the wife loves nov­els and art from the Soviet Union, then viewed as some­what dar­ing.

The hus­band is at­tracted to an­other wo­man, and his wife de­nounces the af­fair at a Com­mu­nist Party com­mit­tee meet­ing at his fac­tory, ru­in­ing his chance of pro­mo­tion. The two then lapse into their own cold war be­fore re­dis­cov­er­ing their love in time for theirs to be pro­nounced, af­ter 50 years, a golden mar­riage.

With 16 per cent of all view­ers ( 160 mil­lion peo­ple) watch­ing, the 30- episode se­ries was a gold­mine for Bei­jing TV, which made $ 10 mil­lion from ad­ver­tis­ing in the se­ries’ last few days.

The more lav­ish Strug­gle had about 60 mil­lion view­ers. It fea­tured young glam­orous grad­u­ates in Shang­hai set­ting out in ca­reers and re­la­tion­ships, free of the chal­lenges com­mon in con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese ur­ban life. ( The au­thor­i­ties con­sider so­cial com­men­tary un­suit­able for TV, ex­cept for the ubiq­ui­tous is­sue of in­law prob­lems.)

An­other suc­cess­ful soap was CCTV’s po­lit­i­cally con­trived The Drive of Life , about the Hua fam­ily, split be­tween Hong Kong and Bei­jing. One brother runs a steel plant but faces bank­ruptcy af­ter a bad in­vest­ment. An­other de­signs car en­gines but is un­der pres­sure from for­eign com­peti­tors. A third is in a down­ward spi­ral af­ter mak­ing a for­tune in the dot­com boom.

The mes­sage is that through hard work and sol­i­dar­ity China’s in­dus­try will pre­vail.

It’s hard to see such soaps sell­ing over­seas, but with au­di­ences in the scores of mil­lions in a coun­try where ad­ver­tis­ers are queu­ing to

The fans are in a lather: From top, the sul­try stars of Colom­bia’s With­out Breasts There is No Par­adise ; Erika Sz­abo and Ed­ina Balogh in Hun­gary’s Bara­tok Kozt ; and the cast of In­dia’s mother- in- law saga, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi

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