Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
Global Connections

Melodramas with a message

By Matthew Knight for CNN
Click to play
How soap operas connect Brazil, Nigeria
  • Telenovelas command a massive television audience worldwide
  • Latin American soap operas are part of everyday life
  • Brazil's telenovelas "broke the mould" of traditional "Cinderella code," says media expert
  • Social issues including abortion, religion, homosexuality are common themes

London, England (CNN) -- They delay televised football matches in Brazil and have even brought forward prayer meetings where they are watched abroad.

Brazil's telenovelas are one of Latin America's most successful exports which has seen them garner passionate followings as far afield as Eastern Europe and across the African continent.

The love stories played out on the small screen enthrall and enchant viewers, and make stars of those who play the leading roles.

"Actors in soap operas, at least in the United States, are considered second or third tier, whereas telenovela is the star system in Latin America," Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, an associate professor at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication told CNN.

The differences don't end there.

Telenovelas, unlike their American soap opera cousins, have a beginning and a definite end -- usually lasting between 100-200 episodes -- and occupy prime time viewing slots.

"They are really a part of everyday life in Latin American culture. People love to watch them," she said.

The recipe for success? The universal language of melodrama, says Acosta-Alzuru.

They are really a part of everyday life in Latin American culture. People love to watch them.
--Carolina Acosta-Alzuru
  • Brazil
  • Soccer
  • Nigeria
  • Television

It's something that every culture in the world understands, she says, and is particularly prevalent in Latin culture -- notably their music and dance.

For many years, telenovelas stuck to what Acosta-Alzuru describes as the "original Cinderella code," but they have evolved, and many now incorporate social issues from religion and racism to abortion and homosexuality into their narratives.

And it was Brazil that led the way.

"They broke the traditional mould," Acosta-Alzuru said. "Brazilians brought in the importance of the context of the story -- the ability to say we can say something about society while we tell a love story. I think they really moved the genre up."

"Roque Santeiro" (1985) and "The Clone" (2001/02) -- which have socio-political and genetic engineering themes respectively -- are examples of how the genre has evolved from simple love stories, says Acosta-Alzuru.

In 2009, Brazil's award-winning telenovela, "Caminho das Indias" ("India: A Love Story") featured a character Tarso Cadore, played by rising star, Bruno Gagliasso, who suffered from schizophrenia.

Mixing social messages with melodrama requires skill from the writers, says Acosta-Alzuru, who has studied telenovelas for over a decade.

"If they feel they are being lectured, they will switch channels," she said.

As well as bring social issues to the fore, there is also evidence suggesting telenovela's may influence viewer's behavior.

In 2009, a report prepared for the Inter-American Development Bank found that Brazilians receiving the Globo TV -- the country's biggest television network, and a major producer of telenovelas -- signal had a lower birth rates and a greater incidence of divorce than areas which had no signal.

The trend of tackling difficult issues head-on looks set to continue as other countries follow Brazil's lead.

Acosta-Alzuru is currently analyzing the reaction to a new Venezuelan telenovela "La Mujer Perfecta" ("The Perfect Woman") whose female protagonist has Asperger's Syndrome.

So far, the audience appear to like it.

"On Twitter and Facebook, I couldn't keep up. There were more than 6,000 tweets in less than 30 minutes," Acosta-Alzuru said.