This summer, the highest-rated prime time show in New York City wasn't CSI or Law & Order. It was La Madrasta, a telenovela produced in Mexico. The telenovela form has been a TV staple south of our border for 50 years, and recently has emerged as the vehicle Spanish-language TV is riding to success in the north. Robert Huesca, a communications professor at Trinity University, tells Brooke that while the form is quite fixed, the content of telenovelas remains very much in flux.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last month the highest rated TV show in the largest market in the country, New York City, was not CSI. It was La Madrasta, or "The Stepmother," a prime time telenovela. Produced mostly in South and Central America, telenovelas are basically soap operas that come to an end usually after 200 episodes or so. The form has been a TV staple south of our border for 50 years and is a proven cash cow in the rest of the world. Now it's seen as the vehicle Spanish language TV will ride to success in the north, a point well taken by Wal Mart, Blockbuster and Best Buy, who've begun selling abridged telenovelas on DVD. Robert Huesca, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, teaches a class on the evolution of the telenovela. He says that ratings research suggests that virtually everyone in the Spanish speaking Americas tunes in, though it's not necessarily a point of pride.
ROBERT HUESCA: Everybody watches telenovelas but not everybody owns up to that fact. Particularly men, when they've been researched they've told researchers that, "Uh, yeah, I watch telenovelas but just because my wife has it on."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Telenovelas have been criticized for being I guess somewhat racist in their portrayal of a class system that's based on skin tone and focused mostly on the rich.
ROBERT HUESCA: I think all mass media in Latin America is racist in terms of who they represent as their stars, whether they're singers or television stars or in the films. They're reflective of wealthy people generally [CHUCKLES] being lighter skinned because of the colonial history of Latin America, but at the same time they have introduced themes into their plots that you'd have to say are challenging. An interesting example in Mexico was prior to the elections of Vicente Fox and really the opening of political liberalism in Mexico where opposition parties could engage in free and fair elections, there was an upstart television network called Television Azteca and they were very popular by putting on telenovelas that were dealing with current events and parties that were competing for elections and that were trying to expose corruption within the ruling PRI government. And I think that the Television Azteca telenovelas were absolutely pushing the envelope and really creating conditions where society was putting pressure on the existing ruling party to open it up and to say, hey, these guys in the ruling party are fair game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there are examples, aren't there, of telenovelas that veered into dangerous territory only to see their ratings drop? I'm thinking about a Brazilian soap called "The Cattle King," which apparently dealt with land reform and the writers were fired. And there was another one featuring a lesbian couple, which also seemed to be too much for viewers. The writers ended up destroying the shopping mall the couple worked in along with the couple, presumably, and then the ratings went back up.
ROBERT HUESCA: There are experiments such as the ones that you mention where the best intentions to appeal to an audience and to capture higher ratings completely backfired. One of the telenovelas that we watched for one of my classes, in fact, dealt with feminism head on. They cast a woman in a very strong role and she had a younger lover. I think one of the sons was gay. And it it completely bombed in the United States. I'm not sure how well it did in Mexico. But it was very frustrating for us because big chunks of the novela were just chopped out and we were taken very quickly to the end of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn't part of the appeal of the telenovela that it isn't that relevant to the grittiness of daily life; that they're sort of fairy tales aimed at as wide an audience as possible?
ROBERT HUESCA: You know, there's like a dual objective here in the telenovela. One is fantasy and escape. But on the other side, scholars have written about this concept of verisimilitude; that is, the telenovela has got to resonate with the lived reality of the audience to an extent that they can relate to it on a concrete level.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me ask you a question by way of an anecdote. In 1992 I was reporting from Moscow and a wild craze there it stopped the planting season, it stopped the war in Moldova when it was on was a Mexican soap opera from the '70s called "The Rich Also Cry." It steamrolled over the American competition in Russia at the time, which was a soap called "Santa Barbara," and the head of the broadcast network told me that "The Rich Also Cry" appealed more to the Russian mentality because and, and I have his quote. He said, "People here don't want to fight like the Americans to build their own lives. They want to be decent, to be little people so that happiness will come to them."
ROBERT HUESCA: That particular telenovela, "Los Ricos Tambien Lloran," it was wildly popular in Latin America, as well as around the world. And I think that the Latin American telenovelas reflect a world view that is different than the kind of products that you get in the United States. In the United States we're a very individualistic society. Our television program tends to reflect that sort of rugged individualism. Latin America, on the other hand, it has been colonized. It has been dominated. People have lived under the yolk of oppression. They have existed through collective means and having a different kind of value system. You know, the structures are much more rigid in Latin America and the kind of history that they have is so wildly different than what we have in the United States, and the kind of fantasies that would appeal to an American audience are really somewhat out of place in Latin America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Robert, thank you very much.
ROBERT HUESCA: My pleasure. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Huesca is a communications professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.