As competition increases between the Spanish language networks, they are reaching out more to non-Spanish speakers in an attempt to get the widest audience possible. Last fall, Univision began providing English captions on their primetime telenovelas, a service Telemundo has provided since 2003. So there has never been a more opportune time for soap fans to make the jump to telenovelas to get their soap fix.
For my first column in this weekly look at the world of telenovelas, I thought it would be helpful to explore the similarities and differences between soap operas and telenovelas as a kind of primer for soap fans interested in making that jump, and then to do a broad overview of the telenovelas broadcast by Univision and Telemundo.
Before moving to a more in-depth examination of the forms, a broad summation of their most obvious similarities: both soap operas and telenovelas are serialized melodramas featuring a large, interconnected cast of characters airing five days a week. Within that format, both soap operas and telenovelas are capable of encompassing myriad genres and tackling a variety of social issues, but there is a central emphasis on romantic pairings. Now, on to the important differences.
FINITE NUMBER OF EPISODES
The most crucial difference between soap operas and telenovelas is soap operas are meant to run in perpetuity and telenovelas have a finite number of episodes. Most telenovelas run 120 to 150 episodes, the longest don’t run much more than 250 episodes. Plot lines are rarely fully resolved on soap operas as the characters are constantly being moved into the next plot. Telenovelas tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end.
Second, because telenovelas tell a complete, finite story, they repeat well. There are several cable networks in the US solely devoted to the 24-hour rerun of telenovelas. The most popular telenovelas become assets to their production companies, properties to be rerun (and resold) over and over again.
THE MANIPULATION OF TIME
An episode of a soap opera occurs more or less in real time. The audience follows the characters for 35 or 22 minutes of those characters’ lives, often for just one or two conversations intercut with other characters’ conversations for the duration of an episode. An episode of a telenovela usually spans about 24 hours. Viewers follow the characters through several series of conversations and events over the course of an entire day.
In addition, soap operas attempt to correspond temporally with the world outside the soap, that is, the world of the audience. Even though a single day on a soap opera can sometimes occur over several episodes, the soap opera characters still manage to celebrate holidays on the same days they occur in the real world. There is rarely any attempt in telenovelas for the months and seasons in their fictional world to correspond with those of the real world. As a result, telenovelas are more readily able to manipulate the time periods they depict.
For example, telenovelas often employ jumps forward in time. Many begin with a prologue that takes place years in the past, showing the eventual protagonists as children and setting up the character motivations that will drive the rest of the story. These prologues can last a few minutes, episodes or even weeks before the story moves into the present day. Even within the present day of the telenovela, the story is occasionally moved forward, usually weeks, though sometimes longer, typically signaled to the audience through the use of a title card and a montage. In the 2011 Telemundo telenovela, MI CORAZÓN INSISTE…EN LOLA VOLCÁN, the heroine discovered she was pregnant in Wednesday’s episode, the story leapt forward eight months in two episodes, and she gave birth in Friday’s episode.
THE HIERARCHY OF CAST
Telenovelas have an overt star system. A look at the opening credits will tell the audience who are the most important characters in the story they are about to watch. The majority of the action will be about these central characters, usually numbering about five or six – the female and male protagonists, a pair of secondary protagonists, and the male and female antagonists. Not only will these characters appear in every episode, but they will monopolize screen time. It is their story being told. The finest telenovelas manage to develop the secondary and tertiary characters and provide them with proper, fully rounded story lines; but in most, those characters are there to merely add variety, little intrigues, or comic relief. They are rarely given actual story or character depth.
Soap operas and telenovelas are each recorded on a small budget using a multiple-camera setup in a studio with little time for rehearsal or retakes. Soap operas are largely studio bound with most episodes featuring no location footage at all. Telenovelas utilize location footage in every episode, sometimes taking up as much as half the running time. It is extremely rare for a telenovela to use a studio set to depict an exterior location, something that is a common practice on soap operas.
UNIVISION VS. TELEMUNDO
Finally, some words about the telenovelas broadcast by Univision and Telemundo, the dominant Spanish language networks in the US.
The first important difference is Univision, for the most part, does not produce its own telenovelas, but imports them from the Mexican media giant Televisa. Univision has the exclusive US rights to Televisa’s productions, a relationship that stretches back to the 1960s. So when you are watching a telenovela on Univision, what you are watching is a telenovela produced primarily for a Mexican audience, with Mexican locales and a cast that is predominantly Mexican. The notable exception is Univision will sometimes devote an afternoon hour (or, at present, two hours) to a telenovela produced by Venevision International, a Venezuelan studio that mostly shoots its telenovelas in Miami, Florida, usually with an international cast.
The actors on Televisa productions usually have a long-standing relationship with the company and it’s common to see the same faces over and over again in each new production. The talent is also largely groomed by Televisa over the years in a way similar to the old Hollywood studio system of the 1920s-1950s. It is not uncommon for a performer to progress as a teenager or even a child actor in telenovelas aimed at young audiences, move on to telenovelas aimed at adults as the child of a protagonist, then advance to supporting roles and finally, if they are popular with audiences, get a shot at a starring role.
As for the Televisa style, I would liken their productions to those of CBS – as the most-watched network, they sometimes seem content to play it safe with their programming. Televisa’s telenovelas are often old-fashioned in their look and editing and their stories, the majority of which in recent years are remakes of telenovelas from decades past, are very familiar to audiences, relying on classic scenarios and character archetypes.
Telemundo produces its own telenovelas. Over the last few years, roughly half of their telenovelas have been produced in Miami, the other half in Colombia. Their telenovelas are produced for the American audience, but there is also an attempt to keep them palatable to the international market. The casts of Telemundo’s telenovelas have a far more international make up. Unlike Televisa, Telemundo usually doesn’t nurture their talent from within the studio, but rather, plucks established talent and name actors from other networks.
Telemundo tends to be more diverse and adventurous than Televisa in the stories they tell and incorporate more modern genres. Over the past couple years, Telemundo telenovelas have featured science fiction (AURORA), supernatural gothic (EL FANTASMA DE ELENA), drug trade crime (SIN SENOS NO HAY PARAÍSO), murder mystery (LA CASA DE AL LADO), action adventure (CORAZÓN VALIENTE), in addition to more traditional fare like fairy tale romance or hacienda stories. When Telemundo does a remake, it is usually an adaption of a recent, modern telenovela produced in another country. Telemundo has also found recent success adapting novels (DOÑA BÁRBARA; LA REINA DEL SUR; FLOR SALVAJE) and this year, even adapted a Jennifer Lopez movie into a telenovela (UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN).
R.G. Morin writes a weekly column for We Love Soaps, "Telenovela Watch: A weekly look at the world of telenovelas for non-Spanish speakers." For feedback or questions, you can email R.G. Morin at email@example.com.