Telenovelas keep viewers glued to their screens
Predictable melodramatic plots are only part of the enduring appeal Mary Siddall has no doubts about her first memorable telenovela: Cuna de Lobos — with the evil Catalina Creel as its incomparable antagonist. Siddall was just a tween then, but like many
“It wasn’t only about watching television, but rather the bonding that occurred with my grandmother,” says the 42-year-old Denver resident, who was 7 or 8 years old when she started watching ’novelas. “Everything would stop at 8 p.m. We’d sit to watch the ’novela while we ate.”
Telenovelas — serialized melodramas broadcast in daily installments — have kept Spanishspeaking viewers glued to the edge of their seats with overly dramatic love stories for more than six decades. And while their American counterparts have seen a major decline in viewership with the cancellation of many long-running dramas — including Guiding Light, which ran for 57 years — telenovelas have maintained a following, with some even re-created for American audiences.
The co-viewing appeal and viewers’ connection to the beloved celebrities who bring the
stories to life are reasons for the genre’s success, says Adrian Santucho, executive vice president of Univision Studios. “There’s also the hook, the payoff, the life lessons learned for all characters — especially the evil ones that repent — and the happy endings.”
Like Siddall, New York City resident Vivian Llodra, 46, who has been tuning into telenovelas for 20 years, remembers watching the soap operas with her Cuban elders. With about 100 episodes per series, their bingewatching appeal — requiring less of a commitment than some decades-long American soaps — is part of their success, says Llodra, who compares telenovelas to reality series. She describes them as “escape TV,” drawing in viewers who can step away from daily demands for an hour or two and get caught up in the over-the-top romances.
“It’s a simple story,” Llodra says, summing up most telenovelas. “Boy meets girl; girl meets boy. They’re destined to be together, but first they have to go through the crazy.” That drama can include anything from a disguised twin trying to ruin the romance to a school shooting. “Then it all works out, and they live happily ever after.”
However, telenovelas are no longer just stories of star-crossed lovers who overcome odds to find happiness. From recent hits such as Telemundo’s “narconovela” La Reina del Sur to such current series as Univision’s La Doble Vida de Estela Carrillo, the telenovelas of Siddall’s and Llodra’s childhoods have changed.
Today’s series are more in tune
“They’re destined to be together, but first they have to go through the crazy.”
Vivian Llodra, describing telenovela plots
with realities such as racism and illegal immigration. Estela Carrillo, for example, follows an undocumented single mom in California. In the first episode, she must decide between helping authorities solve a crime and alerting them to her status. Despite that progress, Llodra points out that LGBTQ story lines are missing from telenovelas, and darker-skinned Latinos often are stereotypically cast in servitude roles.
Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a communications professor at the University of Georgia who has studied telenovelas for two decades, says the story lines have to become more contemporary so that viewers, young and old, can find them more relatable. “These days we like things that have elements of realism,” she says.
That’s where the universal language of love comes in, Llodra says. “Family getting in the way of love or jealousy getting in the way of love … that’s all relatable,” she explains.
The entertainment value helps sustain the genre, but the family ties keep fans coming back.
“(Telenovelas bridge) the gap sometimes and keep us from feeling isolated (from our homeland). It’s just a nice way to keep in touch,” says Llodra, who credits her mother and aunts for introducing her to the genre back when there was only one TV in the home. “It’s nostalgia. It’s something you grow up doing,” she says. “It brings you warm memories.”
A forbidden romance often is at the center of telenovela story lines.
Adriana Louvier and Gabriel Soto star in Caer en Tentacion (Fall to Temptation).
Rafael Amaya in Telemundo’s El Senor de Los Cielos.