Updated: Oct 18, 2021
When United States citizens hear the notion of a telenovela, they probably picture an overly dramatic, shallow, Spanish-speaking show centered around a love triangle. Although this stereotype does have some basis, especially when applied to older telenovelas, it isn’t always the case. Telenovelas come in many shapes and sizes and could actually prove to be quite popular in the American market if more producers pursued them.
What is a telenovela?
At its core, a telenovela is a show that airs daily (usually excluding Sundays) for around four to 12 months, and has 30-50 minute episodes. In a telenovela, there is no concept of seasons. They air daily for a limited period of time and afterward, follow ups such as sequels and prequels are rare.
Many think that “telenovela” is just another way to describe a soap opera, but this is far from the truth. Soap operas generally last many years or decades, and air only during the day. Telenovelas are usually primetime shows, and consequently, are often very well produced. They also don’t have a specific genre, as many seem to believe. Though most telenovelas do have a specific style, with a lot of drama and daily cliffhangers, they can also be anything from comedies to musicals to sci-fi shows, like Brazil’s “O Clone”.
Telenovelas in the U.S.
Though telenovelas, as they exist elsewhere, aren’t made in English, U.S. companies have experimented with English telenovela-style shows.These were adapted to have weekly episodes and seasons, but were still kept to primetime slots. They include shows like ABC’s Ugly Betty, which aired from 2006-2010, and the CW’s Jane the Virgin, which aired from 2014-2019. Both these shows were based on foreign telenovelas, had a number of characteristics common in telenovelas, like frequent cliffhangers and a dramatic but comedic plot, and were relatively popular. Ugly Betty’s first few seasons received high viewership, 8.1 million for its first season, and good critical acclaim. Additionally, Jane the Virgin, though less popular in its TV run, with only about 1.1 million viewers in its first season, was greatly popular on Netflix.
The U.S. also has soap-operas, which are different in style from telenovelas. While soap-operas generally have rehashed, shallow, never-ending plots, telenovelas often have very creative, thought-provoking plots that manage to serve as both social criticism and an entertaining story at the same time. For example, the Brazilian telenovela “Cheias de Charme,” was at its surface, a musical-comedy about 3 maids who decided to become pop-stars together. At the same time, it confronted stereotypes and prejudices about different social classes, by showing the challenges and discrimination that the main characters faced in their journey..
Telenovelas are produced and shown in the U.S. through networks like Telemundo and Univision, but only in Spanish, and they mainly target Hispanic communities in the U.S. Though these do generally come with English subtitles, they aren’t really popular among non-Latino people.
Other advantages of telenovelas over regular shows
Today, Americans love to binge-watch shows. Telenovelas provide an opportunity to do exactly that, but on regular TV, as daily(or nearly daily) episodes allow for a slightly controlled binging of sorts. The show is kept fresh in viewers’ minds, unlike shows that air weekly, but viewers won’t get trapped watching too many episodes at one time.
Both Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin, the aforementioned telenovela-style, would have likely benefited from a telenovela-like style of production. For example, Ugly Betty only fell from popularity in it’s later seasons. Perhaps, if the show had been made like a telenovela, as one continuous, daily, mega-season of sorts, lasting for a few months, it would have been able to stay popular in its entirety. As for Jane the Virgin, it’s popularity on Netflix shows that it would have likely been better-served as a more binge-able show, which as mentioned, telenovelas are.
Telenovelas’ lack of seasons also makes them better. When you’re watching an American show, season finales are almost a form of torture. They almost always leave a few open ends, so as a viewer, you’re going to have to wait almost a year to get a continuation of a story, and that’s painful. Instead, telenovelas completely get rid of this. When watching them, you’ll never have to wait more than one or two days for another episode, and when they finally do end, the ending is generally very final, as they manage to tie up all the loose ends. Thus, they give viewers a sense of closure. All of this makes them easier, and more pleasant to watch than other show styles.
So, if telenovelas are easier to watch, proven to have been a popular concept among Americans , and fit the modern binging culture, why aren’t they made in English? Perhaps we should ask that to America’s television studios.