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Cover Story: Soaps are hot, just not in the U.S.

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
The telenovela "Eva Luna" starring Guy Ecker and Blanca Soto pulled in big ratings for Univision.
The telenovela "Eva Luna" starring Guy Ecker and Blanca Soto pulled in big ratings for Univision.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • American soap operas often pull larger audiences abroad
  • Soaps across the globe are also enjoying popularity
  • Telenovelas are hot right now in the U.S. and pulling in big ratings
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(CNN) -- The Guinness World Records Book 2011 lists the CBS soap opera "The Bold and The Beautiful" as the "most popular soap opera -- current" for its success not only at home, but abroad.

The show can be seen in more than 110 countries and garnered 24.5 million viewers across the globe in 2008, making it more watched than any other telenovela or soap opera on television, according to Guinness.

Too bad daytime dramas aren't doing as well in the United States.

As fans mourn the impending loss of long-running soap operas "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," such dramas in other countries and in other languages are thriving.

In Ireland, fans are closely following the trials and tribulations of the Bishops on "Fair City," while there's plenty of drama being stirred up in Munich on the popular German soap, "Lindenstraße."

Audiences in the United Kingdom have been enthralled with "EastEnders" since it debuted in 1985 and the Dutch get their soapy fix with "Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden," or "Good Times, Bad Times."

"Home and Away" in Australia offers plenty of crickey, hard-bodied, soapy action while the Belgians enjoy "Thuis" ("At Home").

Even in America, the Hispanic telenovelas are racking up ratings that most soaps would envy. Sam Ford, co-editor of the book "The Survival of Soap Opera," said part of the issue could be a matter of timing.

"Soap operas are considered part of daytime (TV) here and they are considered part of prime time (TV) in many other areas," he said. "When U.S. soaps air elsewhere, when British and Australian soaps air and when telenovelas air, a good portion of them air at night and they don't necessarily have some of the same stigmas of daytime programming in the U.S."

Despite their vaunted place in American television history, soaps have not always received the praise or recognition of their night time counterparts.

Many of the original television soap operas began as radio programs which made the leap to the small screen in the 1950s and 1960s when the country had a very different landscape. Advertisers rushed to get onboard with the hopes of snagging the interest -- and dollars -- of the stay-at-home mothers who watched the programs.

By the 1980s, the shows experienced a pop culture revival with the help of characters like Luke and Laura on "General Hospital" and gave several major stars their first break in the business.

According to The Guardian, when Luke and Laura married in 1981, 14 million viewers tuned in to watch, while now the soap averages an audience between 2.5 to 3 million.

But the long-running nature of the soaps, where fans can literally check back in years later and catch right up, is not playing as well with today's viewers. Lynn Leahey, editor of Soap Opera Digest, told The Guardian that shifting viewer demographics are to blame.

"Women are not at home in the same numbers they used to be," she said. "Mothers used to pass the soap-watching bug on to their daughters -- that just doesn't happen now."

Instead, today's soaps are competing with the drama of reality television shows and the time suck that can be social networking.

That craving for a storyline is still there and Peter Tinoco, president and chief executive officer of Venevision Productions, said telenovela audiences enjoy that weaving of a tale.

"There is a difference between our telenovela and the soap operas in the United States," he said. "The soap operas in the United States are ongoing while our telenovelas are like if you were reading a book which has a beginning and an ending and through it people try to live the life of the protagonist. I think the success is in having a beginning and an ending because people don't get tired of watching something."

Tinoco's company is the producer of the telenovela, "Eva Luna," which is the highest-rated domestically produced telenovela. The show recently presented its grand finale on the Univision network which drew more than 9.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen data.

"Eva Luna" also did gangbusters in Latin American countries, Tinoco said, a testament to the cultural importance of such shows in the Hispanic community.

The history of the telenovela began decades ago, Tinoco said, with illustrators producing comic book-style pamphlets of operas and plays that the poor population in Latin American countries couldn't afford to attend. From there, telenovelas share a history with soaps in that the stories morphed into radio programs and later television shows, he said.

Tinoco said the popularity of telenovelas in the U.S. are a mirror of the success they have found in Latin America where every channel has multiple series. When one ends, a new one takes its place and audiences follow, he said.

"They are very basic," he said. "It's a love story, even if it has a little bit of suspense or a little bit of comedy; they always involve a love story."

Daniela Guevara, with the Hispanic marketing firm Lanza Group told CNN she understands the appeal of the telenovelas.

"I'm not surprised to see the success because it's something that the Hispanic community has grown up with," she said. "It's part of our family, part of our life, since we're younger, family, grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters. So I'm not surprised."

The popularity of the telenovelas is expected to increase. According to Nielsen data "by 2050, Hispanics are projected to account for more than 30% of the U.S. population" and that number will be reflected in the ratings.

"The Hispanic consumer represents the greatest potential for sustained growth in the U.S. today," said a recent Nielsen report titled "What You Think You Know vs. What You Need to Know about U.S. Hispanics and Media." "At the current rate of expansion, Hispanics will drive population growth and, in turn, consumption in America for the next generation."

So while the future looks brighter for telenovelas, soap operas appear to be in their winter of discontent. Soap actor Tristan Rogers said in Sam Ford's book that the shows, which now are down to only four left out of 20 in years past, are on their way out.

"This is not a genre that will be around in another 50 years," Rogers said. "In many respects, it isn't necessary. They have made their mark, and almost every type of medium owes something to the way the soaps have been put together, whether they want to admit it or not."

Editor Ford, who has written about the demise of American soaps for Fast Company, said whether or not American soaps are headed for extinction in the short term remains to be seen.

"Ultimately that will be up to the networks and the advertisers," he said. "There are four (soap operas) still on the air in the U.S. and that's 20 hours week. There are plenty of other genres on TV that don't have that much programming."

CNN's Rafael Romo contributed to this report

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