Froetschel, former assistant editor of YaleGlobal Online,
is the author of three mystery novels, most recently Royal
the 1930s when American detergent companies began sponsoring
radio dramas and later television serials aimed at housewives,
little did they know how much these ‘soap operas’
would influence the world. For generations of viewers, serials
like “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns”
shaped opinions of life in capitalist, democratic societies.
But for many reasons, American soaps faded, ceding place to
telenovelas from Mexico and Brazil.
for daytime shows have shrunk in the US since the 1980s, as
the number of channels increased and more women entered the
relegating soap operas to daytime television and female audiences,
and resisting changes to a formula that worked during the 1950s
and 1960s, the US could inadvertently relinquish a hefty, if
unintentional, tool in its soft-power arsenal. Soft power, broader
than propaganda or popular entertainment, is the means and measure
a nation’s ability to change attitudes and achieve policy
objectives through cultural and moral force, explains Joseph
Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the term in 1990. “Seduction
is always more effective than coercion,” he notes.
than update the genre, US networks gradually replaced soap operas
with news and talk shows, which don’t hold up well for
export markets and newcomers to the culture. A decade ago, Chinese
women arrived at Yale, crediting hours of soap-opera videos
for their proficiency with English. For the student of English,
action is minimal and the sentences are short. Props support
easy, repetitive chatter about relationships, shopping, family
or work routines. Fast-paced news and talk shows include plenty
of polarizing drama, but lack the formula for learning languages
so cherished by the Chinese student.
episodes of US soap operas have dwindled in number, and young
viewers bypass reruns, seeking latest advice on fashion, hairstyles
after the US packed daytime TV schedules with soap operas, directors
in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia tweaked the formula, shifting
shows to prime-time evening hours, limiting series to a year
and providing definitive conclusions. These changes, delivered
in Spanish, immediately boosted exportability of what became
known as telenovelas throughout Latin America and reduced dependence
on US programming. Now, Latin American telenovelas dominate
airwaves in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and the
homes of US Hispanics.
top-rated show for US Hispanics in May was Univision’s
“Hasta que el dinero nos separe,” or “Until
Money Do We Part.” The show, originated in Colombia and
remade for Mexico, follows a salesman who works off a debt to
a car-dealer executive after an accident, then falls in love.
Watched by more than 4 million US households, the show leads
weeknight slots in Nielsen national ratings for US Hispanics
in May. Univision’s Los Angeles station, KMEX-TV, is ranked
the top station in the nation among adults aged 18 to 49, and
other Spanish-language stations are no strangers to drawing
top ratings, from Hispanics or non-Hispanics, in Phoenix, Houston,
Sacramento and other US markets.
even as the US government limits broadcast station licenses
for foreign corporations -- to no more than 20 percent of capital
stock or 25 percent of control -- US Spanish-language stations
rely on networks in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin American for
the bulk of prime-time content, particularly for telenovelas
that run five days per week. Many are rags-to-riches tales,
focusing on single romance. Directors shoot episodes at the
last minute, monitoring audience reactions and adjusting plots.
comparison, US soap operas are staid, covering extended families
of professionals like doctors and lawyers, in 30-minute segments
on weekday afternoons. The never-ending tales span decades,
discouraging entry of younger viewers and providing one theory
for audience decline. The latest casualty is “As the World
Turns,” on air for 54 years despite steadily declining
ratings since the 1970s. CBS broadcasts the last episode in
of both soap operas and telenovelas devise outlandish plot twists,
finding inspiration in individual struggles with emerging public
policy on family planning, health care, homosexuality, immigration,
substance abuse, literacy, domestic abuse, finance and more.
In 1967, Mexican director Miguel Sabido deliberately set out
to craft telenovelas with social messages on literacy, women’s
rights, and cultural pride. In 1987, the US soap opera “All
My Children” introduced a female character with AIDS and
a plotline explaining how the disease could be prevented. Inter-American
Development Bank research linked telenovela plots in Brazil
with selection of infant names, increased divorce rates and
decreased birth rates.
the past two decades, some governments and NGOs make no secret
of using the genre to carry social messages, following the lead
of early sponsors who urged clean homes: CARE developed “Wind
Blows Through Dark and Light” for Vietnam to show that
HIV/AIDS could strike any family; UK’s Plan International
launched "Atmajaa" in 2008 to discourage female infanticide
in India; US-based Search for Common Ground develops radio and
television soap operas to teach conflict resolution for eight
countries, including Angola and Nepal.
course, deliberate efforts to craft messages can be bumbling
or self-serving. Earlier this year, Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez called on producers in his nation to focus less on capitalism
and develop “socialist soap operas.” And just before
the prime-time mortgage crisis, Freddie Mac, which buys mortgages
from lenders and packages them into bonds sold around the globe,
and a North Carolina nonprofit teamed up to target US Hispanics
with a 13-session telenovela warning against credit-card debt
and offering advice for buying homes. By some reports, the show
was viewed by more than 25 million before August 2007.
Schuler, writing for the Public Sphere Project, identified a
secret behind the most popular shows: “Ideally the social
messages in the soap operas and telenovelas are presented in
the form of choices that can be consciously made -- not injunctions
or instructions which must be obeyed.”
the end, good stories, language, fashion advice and technology
boost a show’s exportability more than deliberate political
messages or education. But the US no longer monopolizes global
television. Researchers agree that that these modern folktales
shape opinions, prompting viewers to reflect on their lives
and prepare for social change in a complicated world.
with permission from YaleGlobal Online
(c) 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.