Soap Opera and Telenovela Research Paper

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‘Soap opera’ is a pejorative term coined in the 1930s by the entertainment trade press of the United States to designate the daytime dramatic serials that were broadcast on radio and aimed primarily at women. The term ‘soap’ was due to the sponsorship of the programs, which usually were produced by the advertising agencies of the soap and toiletry industries. The term ‘opera’ refers ironically to the dramatic character of the genre and its ‘low cultural quality.’ Soap operas are daytime serials with a dramatic content aimed primarily at a female audience. The genre emerged in the early period of the radio industry and has been broadcast by television stations since the 1950s. ‘Telenovela’ is a term used throughout Latin America to designate the melodramatic serials that became the most popular programs of the television industries of the region. They have been exported to every continent in the world. Although telenovelas have a similar history and common features when compared to soap operas, they are two distinct genres.

1. Soap Opera

The soap opera emerged in the US radio industry of the early 1930s. The genre developed as a response to a fundamental problem for the commercial radio stations and the advertising agencies: how to achieve the largest audience of potential consumers of certain products. The advertising agencies of the soap, toiletry, and foodstuff industries took on the role of developing programs that could attract the members of the general audience that were the main potential consumers: women between the ages of 18 and 49. When searching for formulas that could do this job, the agencies found in serials a type of narrative that proved to be suitable in creating a faithful audience. By the late 1920s, a program that relied upon narrative and fictional characters, Amos ‘n’ Andy, established a crucial precedent by demonstrating the appeal of the radio serial form. The program presented the adventures of two Southern black men living in the city of Chicago and achieved an estimated daily audience of 40 million listeners by 1929.

The first radio programs that can be classified as soap operas appeared in the early 1930s and were based on these early successful experiments. The serial Painted Dreams, first broadcast in October 1930 by the station WGN, told the story of an Irish woman, her household, and daughter. The program was written by a school teacher turned radio actress, Irna Phillips, who has been credited with ‘inventing’ the genre soap opera. Phillips wrote many successful plots, for ex- ample, The Guiding Light, the longest running soap ever. The serial was introduced in January 1937, and lasted for 19 years on radio. It is still broadcast on television by CBS. Frank Hummert and his wife, Anne, were other key figures in the birth of the soap opera. Their advertising agency created one of the first daytime serials ever produced, Stolen Husband, in 1931. Although the serial failed, it helped the Hummerts develop the formula that proved to be successful in attracting large audiences.

Between 1933 and 1937, soap operas consolidated their dominant position in radio daytime programming and became the primary advertising vehicle for the soap, toiletry, and foodstuff industries. Although the soap opera faced a decline in broadcasting time and in number after this period of expansion, it remained one of the most popular genres in the history of radio. By 1940, the 64 serials being broadcast each day constituted 92 percent of all sponsored daytime broadcast hours and the 10 highest-rated daytime programs were all soap operas (Allen 1985). It is estimated that in the same year, one of the best in the history of daytime serials, about 20 million female viewers, approximately half the women at home during the day, listened to two or more serials daily (Cantor and Pingree 1983).

The radio era of the soap opera in the US was terminated by the advent of a new technology, television, which would soon become the most important advertising medium. By 1955, radio soap operas were practically eliminated and the last ones were discontinued in the 1960–61 season. When the last daytime serials left radio in the early 1960s, they were already an established form of television programming and advertisers continued to produce soap operas after the transition to television. Proctor and Gamble, for example, produced the first television network soap opera, The First Hundred Years, first broadcast by CBS in December 1950. The reason for the longevity of the daytime serials and their successful transition to television was the suitability of fulfilling one key demand of the commercial broadcasting system: the need to attract the audience of heavy consumers in a cost-effective manner.

The main feature of the narrative text offered by the soap operas is ‘openness.’ Soaps are characterized by the absence of ultimate closure, since the plots never begin or end, staying on the air for several years or decades. The central elements of the serials’ content usually gravitate towards issues such as love, family, intimate relationships, and other domestic concerns, although the genre has been characterized by a process of diversification. As we have seen, the history of the soap opera can be traced to the US. Nevertheless, the dramatic serials have become a common programming form all over the world, with specific national peculiarities (e.g., Allen 1995). In Europe, for example, an analysis of the network of family and romantic relationships portrayed by soap operas has shown that European serials are not simply an American genre which was imported. Europe has developed distinctive subtypes of the genre, most notably the ‘community model’ in which loves and family conflicts are colored by more or less pedestrian hardships of sickness, unemployment, and teenage drug habits (Liebes and Livingstone 1998).

By definition, soap operas are daytime serials. Nevertheless, in the case of the US, some prime-time dramatic serials, such as Dallas and Dynasty, have been broadcast during prime-time hours and have achieved a huge success both on the national and the international level. These prime-time serials frequently have been defined as soap operas, but they differ from daytime serials in several aspects. Prime-time serials demand a more expensive production structure and have fewer episodes. They also have a faster pace that leads to more resolution of conflicts when compared to soap operas (Cantor and Pingree 1983).

Despite the fact that soap operas have been one of the most popular and central genres in the history of television, there were very few published works on television serials until the early 1970s. This ‘invisibility’ of the soap opera was due, to a great extent, to the low position it occupies in the hierarchy of taste in the cultural field and to the unequal gender relations that constrain it. Media, academic, and public discourses about soap operas have been marked by the fact these serials are ‘woman’s forms.’ It was feminism that has transformed soap opera into a field for academic inquiry, although some feminists have also responded in a hostile manner toward the genre. Initially, feminist scholars used textual analysis to compare ‘real’ women with their stereotypical and unrealistic images (the sex object and the housewife), criticizing soap operas’ tendency to confirm female subordination. Later on, feminists used more varied methodological approaches, including qualitative audience research, to affirm and authenticate the pleasures offered by the genre to its female audiences. The feminist notion that ‘the personal is political’ helped turn media research in the l970s and l980s away from news and current affairs toward ‘softer’ programs. Ensuing studies found soap operas’ focus on the domestic sphere of women’s everyday lives to provide meaningful, rather than escapist, entertainment; they tended to validate, rather than condemn, the role that soap opera viewing plays in women’s lives (see Brunsdon 1997, Brunsdon et al. 1997).

2. Telenovela

Telenovelas are melodramatic serials produced in Latin America. They have become the most popular programs of the television industries of the region and a successful phenomenon in the international market. Although telenovelas have features in common with soap operas, they are two distinct genres. Soap operas are broadcast during the day, usually in the afternoon, while telenovelas dominate the prime-time slots of Latin American TV networks. As a result, soap operas are watched primarily by women while telenovelas attract a broader audience in terms of age and gender. If soaps are ‘open’ forms, broadcast for years or decades, telenovelas are ‘closed,’ having a clear beginning and an end, and lasting approximately 180– 200 episodes or 6–8 months. Finally, if soaps are characterized by authorial anonymity, telenovela writers in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, have personal styles that get recognized by the public (see Vink 1988).

As with their American counterparts, telenovelas have their roots in the daytime serials that were broadcast by the commercial radio stations, the radionovelas. Early on, Cuba consolidated a commercial broadcasting system, which became an important production center of radio melodramatic serials. By 1930, the city of Havana had proportionally more radio stations than New York and in 1932 Cuba was the third country in the world in terms of the number of radio receivers (Ortiz et al. 1989). A key figure in the development of the radio serials in Latin America was the Cuban writer Felix Caignet. After the first radionovelas were broadcast in Cuba around 1935, Caignet started writing several melodramatic texts which became popular not only in Cuba, but all over Latin America. For example, the story El Derecho de Nacer (The Right to Be Born) has been broadcast by radio stations all over the region for several decades and was adapted with great success for television in the 1960s.

After the introduction of the first television stations in Mexico and Brazil in 1950, telenovelas gradually became the most popular programming form of the television industries of the continent. Since the late 1960s, telenovelas have dominated prime-time and commanded the highest advertising rates. Globo Network in Brazil and Televisa in Mexico became giant media corporations and their successful programming strategies have been based largely on the local production of telenovelas. In the late 1970s, after becoming virtual monopolies in their national markets, these companies began exporting telenovelas with great success. Globo pioneered the conquest of the international market in the early 1980s by exporting the telenovela Escra a Izaura (Izaura, the Slave) that became a national obsession in countries like Poland, China, and Cuba. On the other hand, Mexico concentrated first on Latin America and Hispanic audiences in the US. Later on, some of its telenovelas, as Los Ricos Tambien Lloran (The Rich also Weep), were successful phenomena in countries like Italy and Russia. Latin American telenovelas have been viewed in more than 120 countries and besides Globo and Televisa, the telenovelas from Venevision Network of Venezuela have also been successful in the world market (see Mattelart and Mattelart 1990, Lopez 1995, Martin-Barbero 1995).

The Latin American telenovelas focus on melodramatic conflicts, passion, tragic suffering, and moral conflicts. There are, nevertheless, important national peculiarities in the development of the genre. Mexican telenovelas are known for their weepiness and lack of specific historical references, while Brazilian telenovelas are more ‘realistic’ in their depiction of specific historical and political events of the country (see Lopez 1995), although more recently Mexican telenovelas such as Nada Personal (Nothing Personal ) and Colombian serials like Porvestas Calles (In These Streets) have also dealt with political and social contexts in a more explicit way. Latin American telenovelas have, therefore, played a growing role in representing the cultural, social and political conflicts that have shaped the region.


  1. Allen R C 1985 Speaking of Soap Operas. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC and London
  2. Allen R C 1995 (ed.) To Be Continued … Soap Operas Around The World. Routledge, London and New York
  3. Brunsdon C 1997 Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes. Routledge, London and New York
  4. Brunsdon S, D’Acci J, Spigel L (eds.) 1997 Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  5. Cantor M G, Pingree S 1983 The Soap Opera. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA
  6. Liebes T, Livingstone S 1998 European soap operas: The diversification of a genre. European Journal of Communication 13: 147–80
  7. Lopez A 1995 Our welcomed guests: Telenovelas in Latin America. In: Allen R C (ed.) To Be Continued … Soap Operas Around The World. Routledge, London and New York
  8. Martin-Barbero J 1995 Memory and form in the Latin American soap opera. In: Allen R C (ed.) To Be Continued … Soap Operas Around The World. Routledge, London and New York
  9. Mattelart M, Mattelart A 1990 The Carnival of Images: Brazilian TV Fiction. Bergin & Garvey, New York
  10. Ortiz R, Borelli S, Ramos J 1989 Telenovela: Historiave Producao, 1st edn. (Telenovela: History and Production). Brasiliense, Sao Paulo
  11. Vink N 1988 The Telenovela and Emancipation: A Study on Television and Social Change in Brazil. Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam
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