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