Telenovelas and Melodrama in Latin America
- LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0206
- LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0206
Telenovelas are a television genre developed and produced originally in Latin America since the 1950s. Now they serve as one of the largest media exports of countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, circulating widely within Latin America as well as around the world. Telenovelas are often compared to the US soap opera and do boast some common characteristics, such as their reliance on the melodramatic mode. However, telenovela production, structure, and programming differ greatly from that of soap operas, with the most-notable differences being their “closed” structure—narratives generally last between six and fifteen months and, in most countries, are programmed nightly—and their popularity across demographic groups, with many telenovelas being tailored for the whole family. While research in the field began in the 1970s, scholars agree that it was not until the effects and power of media globalization began to be seen in the 1980s that telenovela scholarship gathered traction. Early research grappled with the popularity and influence of telenovelas, with studies about the history and structure of the genre, the conditions of melodrama, and the context of national television industrial formation. Early debates deliberated over the telenovela’s role—along with television in general—in pacifying audiences and participating in mass media imperial projects; telenovela exportation success required the reassessment of these theories of culture, given Latin America’s growing role as a producer of media flow. Other general areas of inquiry include nuanced discussions of the genre and its persistence, studies of its production and consumption in local conditions, and analyses of particular telenovelas. Telenovela scholars have placed their work in direct and fruitful conversation with scholars in other countries studying serial melodramas, particularly as telenovelas have grown into a significant global export. Attending to the transnational context of media flow and consumption has lead to less concern about imperialism’s effects on Latin American audiences and more-extensive theoretical work on the relationship between telenovelas to formations of Latin American modernity. Some scholars make the case that telenovelas’ Latin American success has to do with the role that melodrama plays in facilitating the negotiation of Latin American modernity. Since the late 1990s, scholarship has continued apace in all the major areas of television studies: production, reception, the text and its thematic and narrative meanings, and the relationship between telenovelas and their sociohistorical context. The organization of this article reflects these research areas. Newer developments in the field include the growth of telenovela production in the United States (telenovela programming and viewership has a longer history) and the loss of markets for telenovelas due to the success of Turkish dizis and the rise of over-the-top (OTT) platforms. More scholarship is needed in these areas.
Perhaps because telenovelas are of interest to most Latin American countries, whether as producers or consumers, general overviews that attempt to survey the entirety of the field are rare (see Edited Collections for collective interventions that aim to map the field of study). Yet, there are certainly touchstone works that ground many scholars’ work in Latin American telenovelas. One of the earliest pieces to name and describe the phenomenon of telenovelas is Rogers and Antola 1985. It provides a static snapshot of industrial practices in the 1980s from a US academic lens. Emerging out of traditions of Latin American cultural and communication studies, Martín-Barbero and Muñoz 1992, Mazziotti 1993, and Mazziotti 1996 articulate theories of genre, cultural industry, and reception that continue to be useful in the 2010s. The most ambitious in scope is Mazziotti 1996, which provides insight into national industrial processes and the shift into transnational economies and trade. Lopez 1995 offers a firm grounding in Latin American cultural studies of the telenovela while placing the analysis in relationship to studies of the soap opera, thus offering helpful distinctions between these melodramatic serial narratives. Cabrujas 2002 is not a scholarly monograph—instead it offers a telenovela writer’s understanding of the history and value of telenovelas; unlike other readings, it provides insight into how writers think about the structure and goals of the text. Simplemente María is commonly understood to be one of the most popular telenovelas of all time. Singhal, et al. 1995 analyzes the phenomenon of its original broadcast and subsequent adaptations, providing a focalized history of one telenovela. This essay mentions that Simplemente María became well known for having unintended pedagogical effects, which led to the development and implementation of entertainment education by Miguel Sabido, a Mexican television producer (see also Singhal, et al. 2004, cited under Reception and Audiences). For brief overviews that are accessible to undergraduates, see Martínez 2005 and Telenovelas by Anthony La Pastina.
Cabrujas, José Antonio. Y Latinoamérica inventó la telenovela. Edited by Leonardo Padrón. Caracas, Venezuela: Editorial Alfa, 2002.
Dictated lectures by a renowned telenovela writer. Collected and edited by Padrón, another Venezuelan telenovela writer. The result is a very readable overview of the history and theory of the telenovela, as well as a practical guide to writing telenovelas that offers insight into the structural demands of the telenovela narrative.
LaPastina, Anthony. “Telenovelas.” The Encyclopedia of Television.
A brief, example-filled history of the telenovela in Latin America, leaning toward more information on Brazil than other countries.
La Pastina, Anthony, Cacilda Rego, and Joseph D. Straubhaar. “The Centrality of Telenovelas in Latin America’s Everyday Life: Past Tendencies, Current Knowledge, and Future Research.” Global Media Journal 2.2 (2003): 1–15.
A review and assessment of research on telenovelas. Provides a solid introduction to the field, with a conclusion that looks toward future lines of inquiry.
Lopez, Ana. “Our Welcomed Guests: Telenovelas in Latin America.” In To Be Continued: Soap Operas around the World. Edited by Robert Allen, 256–275. London: Routledge, 1995.
Argues that rather than an “alienating poacher”—that is, a cultural product of imperialism—telenovelas should be considered a “welcomed guest,” thus theorizing them as an active agent in complex processes of Latin American modernization, nation building, and transnationalization. It offers an overview of the genre and its relationship to melodrama and the national.
Martín-Barbero, Jesús, and Sonia Muñoz. Televisión y melodrama: Géneros y lecturas de la telenovela en Colombia. Bogotá, Colombia: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1992.
Influential monograph begins with sections that develop understandings of the role of melodrama on television, melodrama’s roots, and the way in which the telenovela genre became nationalized (i.e., understood as a local, popular expression). Further sections provide readings of Colombian telenovelas and ethnographic studies of families’ social uses of television and telenovelas.
Martínez, Ibsen. “Romancing the Globe.” Foreign Policy 151 (November–December 2005): 48–56.
This mainstream introduction to telenovelas, written by a telenovela writer, provides an overview of the genre’s history, economics, characteristics, and global success.
Mazziotti, Nora. “Introducción: Acercamientos a las telenovelas latinoamericanas.” In El espectáculo de la pasión: Las telenovelas Latinoamericanas. Edited by Nora Mazziotti, Eliseo Verón, Jesús Martin-Barbero, Jorge A. González, María Teresa Quiroz, and Anamaria Fadul, 11–27. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones Colihue, 1993.
Provides a thorough overview of what telenovelas are and why they matter for scholars. It recognizes the challenge of studying national or regional differences (or both) while also theorizing the commonalities. It argues for more studies of reception that attend closely to viewers’ experiences and knowledge.
Mazziotti, Nora. La industria de la telenovela: La producción de ficción en América Latina. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Paidós, 1996.
An overview of the telenovela industry in Latin America that charts its rise as an influential and valuable cultural product. Chapters address the development of the genre and its mechanisms, the history of the broadcasting industries and current terms of telenovela production, and a comparison of the Mexican, Brazilian, and Venezuelan industries. Several chapters address the particular political and economic conditions in Argentina that have shaped the telenovela industry.
Rogers, Everett M., and Livia Antola. “Telenovelas: A Latin American Success Story.” Journal of Communication 35.4 (1985): 24–35.
Studies the international flow of television programming, examining the rise of Latin American media companies and success through the particular format of the telenovela. Reviews the development of the genre and highlights how telenovelas have replaced imported US programming in Latin America. Confirms audience preference for locally produced television.
Singhal, Arvind, Rafael Obregon, and Everett M. Rogers. “Reconstructing the Story of Simplemente María, the Most Popular Telenovela in Latin America of All Time.” International Communication Gazette 54.1 (1995): 1–15.
Traces the phenomenon of Simplemente María, one the most popular telenovelas (first aired in Argentina in 1967, later adapted in Peru, Venezuela, and Mexico; the Mexican version has been broadcast all over the world). It makes a case for why it attained such great popularity, and traces its unintended effects (influence on adult literacy classes).
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