Telenovelas an intercultural phenomenon (III)
Telenovelas, Spanish-language melodramas from south of the border, are the ultimate crossover phenomenon. Their addictive formula -- a woman's agonizing struggle ending in redemption -- attracts 2 billion viewers worldwide.
Novelas reach such a vast audience, principally in developing nations, because they are so cheap to produce, and stations pay so little to broadcast them. The Latino trade magazine TVMAS estimates that Mexico produces 2,800 hours of novelas each year -- enough programming to run nine hours a day, five days a week -- for $200 million, no more than the 1997 movie Titanic alone cost to produce. Networks pay prices for novelas ranging from nothing in Afghanistan (Mirada was stolen off an Indian satellite) to a few hundred dollars per hour in Eastern Europe and a few thousand per hour in the United States. Profits are good -- TVMAS estimates that Mexican novelas generate annual revenues of $600 million, but actors are not nearly as rich as they are famous. A distinguished actor in a title role will occupy a comfortable, middle-class Mexico City apartment, but nothing like the fabulous novela world of mansions, servants, and private jets that his or her character may inhabit.
Novelas' global importance is not their economic scale but their powerful cultural attraction -- and danger. They offer hope. "If I see Veronica Castro in The Rich Also Cry, she could be Mexican, French, or African," says novela writer Blanco. "But she suffers during her whole life, and in the end she becomes the senora of the household, respected, loved. And I want to believe in that. I have to believe in that, because tomorrow I must get out of bed and get on with life, no matter how hard it is."
The other side of novelas' miraculous personal victories can be social defeatism. "We know life isn't like telenovelas, but we wish it were," says TV critic Cueva. "Mexico's culture is one of suffering, coupled with hope for change. Things will change magically: Our team will win the World Cup. We will finally put our economic crisis behind. The new administration will make everything better. Those are always illusions. Telenovelas speak of a static society. There is always another novela, but it is always the same story." It seems little accident that novelas have achieved some of their greatest successes amid national upheaval: Russia's social devastation, Indonesia's terrible economic crisis. A Serbian woman was watching the Mexican novela Esmeralda, The New York Times reported, when a bomb destroyed her house. Fortunately, she was unharmed.
Audiences cherish Novelas' blind hope because today's world is so harsh, because the human condition is so uncertain ■