¿Hablas telenovela?


January 5, 2012

For viewers mourning the end of soap operas, the Spanish-language serial dramas known as telenovelas offer a fast-paced, over-the-top alternative. Now some come with English captions.

Their names are Ana Paula and Rogelio and Blanca and Bruno. They flirt, argue, make mad love, peel out in sports cars, scheme, ride dangerous horses and every night leave their fans dying to know what happens next.

They are the heroes and villains of telenovelas, the Spanish-language serial dramas that are one of the most popular TV program formats in the world, watched by billions.

As American soap operas gasp their last breath, replaced by talk shows and reality TV, the telenovela is on the rise here. Now offered with closed captions in English, telenovelas could fill the steamy, tragic void left for soap opera fans — and help them brush up on their Spanish.

If you’ve never seen one, you’re in the global minority.

“Much of the total TV output in the world is telenovelas,” said Doug Darfield, senior vice president of multicultural measurement for the Nielsen ratings company. In the United States, telenovelas, or novelas for short, are “far and away the most popular type of program among households who speak mostly Spanish,” he said. A telenovela conclusion gets ratings comparable to the Super Bowl, Darfield added.

On Dec. 26, the two-hour finale of “La Fuerza del Destino” (“The Power of Destiny”) on the Univision network had 8 million viewers nationwide, more than any other network in its time slot.

Beginning this year, all of Univision’s prime-time novela premieres will be offered with English closed captions — a move intended to expand the audience beyond the Hispanic community.

“Many of our viewers are mainly English speakers,” said Gustavo Mancilla, general manager of WUMN-TV (Ch. 13), Univision’s local affiliate. “They tune in just to get Spanish practice, and then they get engaged with the story.”

Telenovelas are easy to use for Spanish practice, Darfield said, because “often there will be an emotional statement, then pause, pause, pause, so you can take a moment to digest and comprehend it.”

Former Minnesota Twins great and telenovela fan Tony Oliva, who was born and raised in Cuba, doesn’t need Spanish lessons, but he thinks telenovelas are a great way to practice.

“More people in Minnesota would learn to speak Spanish, more quickly, if they watched them,” said Oliva, who gets hooked on one every season.

“When he’s at the ballpark and I don’t get his show recorded, I’m in trouble,” said his wife, Gordette.

High drama, high camp

Yessenia Felix, 19, was named after the 1987 telenovela series “Yessenia.”

At her West St. Paul home, multiple generations of the family gathered recently around the big TV in the living room to watch the premiere of the telenovela “La Que No Podía Amar” (“The One Who Could Not Love”).

Her 13-year-old sister Angelica, brother Javier, 8, mother Elvira Flores and grandparents Jesús and Victorina Flores watched the opening scene intently as a hacienda owner having a nightmare emotes, “No, no, nooooo!”

Yessenia explained what every telenovela has in common: “There are one or two good people, and the bad people are always trying to ruin their lives, until the end when the good ones get together,” she said. Her favorite thing about novelas is that “when one ends, another starts.”

Telenovela fans can get caught up in the story lines, even as they laugh at the over-the-top facial expressions and voices. In the Felix household, giggles erupted during “La Que No Podía Amar” as Rogelio, who uses a wheelchair, suddenly drew a whip to punish two men who had displeased him, and when Ana Paula, clad in a tight dress, was asked to “put on something more professional” — and returned in a uniform just as tight, short and low-cut as the first dress.

Youth appeal

Novelas are so popular that the government is starting to use them to reach Hispanic audiences.

In June, the Texas Department of Transportation created two-minute telenovela-style PSAs on drunken driving. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration put a four-part telenovela about medicine safety up on YouTube.

The popularity of telenovelas isn’t lost on Hollywood, either. Will Ferrell stars in “Casa de Mi Padre” (“My Father’s House”), a comedy set to premiere in March that takes off on telenovela style.

Unlike soaps, novelas are planned to have short runs — usually six months with 120 episodes, each ending in a cliffhanger. The casts are usually double those in American dramas.

Unlike U.S. soap opera stars, telenovela stars are afforded demigod status by their fans, even if they don’t have the American household name recognition of “Modern Family” star Sofia Vergara or movie star Salma Hayek, both of whom got their starts on telenovelas.

Although telenovelas originated in Mexico, they are now made worldwide and reflect many different cultures, from Central or South America to the Philippines and even Holland. There are different genres, such as paranormal or historical telenovelas.

Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarría, a spoken-word poet from St. Paul, has relatives who watch telenovelas, but he hasn’t for a while, partly because he thinks they reinforce stereotypes.

“There’s always a machismo with the men, and women are only allowed to do certain things,” said Sanchez-Chavarría, who is of Peruvian heritage. “But maybe once a season there will be a really good one that challenges both of those things. I saw one that actually starred Erik Estrada, and watching him try to speak Spanish was hilarious.”

Another point of controversy that telenovelas have weathered — without changing much — is the light skin color of most of the stars. The darker-skinned actors are mostly supporting cast, like maids, he said.

While Univision dominates the U.S. market with more than half of all Spanish-language programming, other novelas by its main competitor, Telemundo, are available through cable and satellite dish packages.

Telenovela producers are now taping and setting some of their series in Miami or Los Angeles to appeal more to American Hispanics. They’re also adding story lines designed to draw in more men.

“Some of them are more business-oriented, with more power struggles,” Mancilla said.

That may not work with Isaias Nuñez, 32, of Minneapolis. He’s sticking to sports.

“Novelas? Too much drama,” he said.