The telenovela is a form of melodramatic serialized fiction produced and aired in most Latin American countries. These programs have traditionally been compared to English language soap operas and even though the two genres share some characteristics and similar roots, the telenovela in the last three decades has evolved into a genre with its own unique characteristics. For example, telenovelas in most Latin American countries are aired in prime-time six days a week, attract a broad audience across age and gender lines, and command the highest advertising rates. They last about six months and come to a climactic close.

Telenovelas generally vary from 180 to 200 hundred episodes, but sometimes specific telenovelas might be extended for a longer period due to successful ratings. The first telenovelas produced in Latin American in the 1950s were shorter, lasting between fifteen and twenty episodes and were shown a few times a week. As they became more popular and more technologically sophisticated, they were expanded, becoming the leading genre in the daily prime-time schedule.

Unlike U.S. soap operas that tend to rely on the family as a central unit of the narrative, Latin American telenovelas focus on the relation between a romantic couple as the main motivator for plot development. During the early phases of their evolution in Latin American, until the mid- 1960s, most telenovelas relied on conventional melodramatic narratives in which the romantic couple confronted opposition to their staying together. As the genre progressed in different nations at different rhythms they it became more attuned to local culture. The Peruvian telenovela Simplemente Maria, for example, a version of the Cinderella story, dealt with the problems of urban migration. The Brazilian telenovela, Beto Rockfeller presented the story of an anti-hero who worked as a shoe shop employee and pretended to be a millionaire getting simultaneously involved with two women, one rich and one poor. This telenovela appears to have led to the most dramatic changes in that nation's genre. It became an immediate hit in 1968. It introduced the use of colloquial dialogue. It presented social satire. And it offered new stylistic elements, such as the use of actual events in the plot, more natural acting, and improvisation.

The Globo network, Brazil's largest, which was only beginning to produce telenovelas in the late 1960s, soon took the lead and imposed these new trends upon the telenovela market. Indeed, Globo, owes it international recognition and economic powerhouse status to the telenovela. In the 1970s, Globo invested heavily in the quality of its telenovelas, using external locations traditionally avoided because of production costs. And Globo's export success forced other producers in the region to implement changes in production values and modernize their narratives to remain competitive. Mexico, for example, after dominating the international market for several years, had to adapt its telenovelas according to the influences of the main competitors, especially Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela.

There are important national distinctions within the genre in the areas of topic selection, structure and production values and there are also clear distinctions between the telenovelas produced in the 1960s and the 1990s, in terms of content as well as in production values. As Patricia Aufderheide has pointed out, recent telenovelas in Brazil "dealt with bureaucratic corruption, single motherhood and the environment; class differences are foregrounded in Mexican novelas and Cuba's novelas are bitingly topical as well as ideologically correct." In Colombia, recent telenovelas have dealt with the social violence of viewers' daily lives, but melodramatic plots that avoid topical issues are becoming more popular. In Brazil the treatment of racism is surfacing in telenovelas after being considered a taboo subject for several years.

The roots of the Latin American telenovelas go back to the radio soap operas produced in the United States, but they were also influenced by the serialized novels published in the local press. The origins of the melodramatic serialized romance date back to the sentimental novel in 18th century England, as well as 19th century French serialized novels, the "feuilletons." In late 19th and early 20th centuries, several Latin American countries also published local writers' novels in a serialized form. However the proliferation of radionovelas, that would latter provide personnel as well as expertise to telenovela producers started in Cuba in the late 1930s. According to Katz and Wedell, Colgate and Sydney Ross Company were responsible for the proliferation of radionovelas in pre-Castro Cuba. In the beginning stages of telenovelas in Latin America, in the 1950s, Cuba was an important exporter of the genre to the region, providing actors, producers and also screenplays. U.S. multinational corporations and advertising agencies were also instrumental in disseminating the new genre in the region. Groups such as U.S. Unilever were interested in expanding their market to housewives by promoting telenovelas which contained their own product tie-ins. Direct influence of the United States on the growth and development of telenovela in the region subsides after the mid-1960s, and the genre slowly evolved in different directions in different countries. In the 1950s and early 1960s, telenovelas were primarily adaptations of novels and other literary forms, and only a few Latin American scriptwriters constructed original narratives. By the late 1960s local markets started producing their own stories, bringing in local influences, and shaping the narratives to particular audiences.

Presently the leading telenovela producers in the region are Televisa, Venevision, and Globo, the leading networks in Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil respectively. These networks not only produce telenovelas for the local market but also export to other Latin American nations and to the rest of the world. Televisa, for instance, is the leading supplier of telenovelas to the Spanish-speaking market in the United States. By 1988, Brazil had exported telenovelas to more than 128 countries. The more recent trend among telenovela producers in the region is to engage in co-productions with other nations, to guarantee better access to the international market.

-Anthony LaPastina

El Vuelo del Aguila
Photos courtesy of Televisa

El Vuelo del Aguila
Photos courtesy of Televisa

El Vuelo del Aguila
Photos courtesy of Televisa

El Vuelo del Aguila
Photos courtesy of Televisa


Allen, R., editor. To be Continued...: Soap Operas and Global Media Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Aufderheide, P. "Latin American grassroots video. Beyond television." Public Culture (Chicago), 1993.

Katz, E. and Wedell, G. Broadcasting in the Third World: Promise and Performance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Lopez, Ana. "The Melodrama in Latin America." In Landy, M., editor. Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Melo, Jose Marques de. The presence of the Brazilian Telenovelas in the International Market: Case study of Globo Network. Sao Paulo: University of Sao Paulo, 1991.

Rogers, E. and Antola, L. "Telenovelas: A Latin American Success Story." Journal of Communication (New York), 1985.

Singhal, Arvind. "Harnessing the Potential of Entertainment-education Telenovelas." Gazette, January 1993.

Straubhaar, Joseph. "The Development of the Telenovela as the Pre-eminent Form of Brazilian Popular Culture." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture (Las Cruces, New Mexico), 1982.

Vink, Nico. The Telenovela and Emancipation: A Study of Television and Social Change in Brazil. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Royal Tropical Institute, 1988.


See also Brazil; Mexico; Soap Opera; Teloroman