Often known as 'Spanish Soap Operas' telenovelas are a Latin American phenomenon – with the name 'tele' short for television, and 'novela' being Spanish for 'novel'. These programmes normally run in single seasons and have melodramatic plot lines, often romances or adventure stories, hence the relationship to novels. The difference between a telenovela and soap opera is that where soaps are long running, sometimes for decades, a telenovela will be a single story across one season, and they tend to span a wider range of genres including historical romances, mysteries and thrillers, and romantic comedies.
Brazil and Mexico are huge producers of these shows, and have become the main countries for exporting them internationally, so telenovelas are now being seen around the world. In Latin American countries, many actors are hugely famous for starring in telenovelas and often shows are sold on the high profile names they feature. Famous shows include Las Tres Marias (The Three Marias), Juegos de Fuego and La Reina Del Sur (The Queen of the South). However, one of the most successful shows of all time is Yo soy Betty La Fea, better known here for its American adaptation, which you might recognise: Ugly Betty.
The comedy tells the story of an unfashionable woman who lands a job at a prestigious fashion magazine. Ugly Betty adapted the telenovela format for American audiences – running for multiple seasons, yet still retaining its South American roots with Mexican American actress Americah Ferrerah and Cuban American director Silvio Horta, although the show did receive criticism from Columbia for being an imitation and appropriation of the original show.
More recently another adaptation Jane the Virgin has become hugely popular in the US and has aired on E4 in the UK. Now into its second season the show focuses on Jane Villanueva, a virgin who is accidentally artificially inseminated and becomes pregnant. The story pokes fun at the melodrama of telenovela, while using it itself in seemingly ridiculous, but incredibly engaging plots.
With the huge numbers of Spanish language shows being imported internationally, and two very successful American adaptations, amongst others, it is clear the telenovela is crossing cultural boundaries.