When most people hear the term "telenovela," they think Latin soap opera and leave it at that. And while telenovelas do share characteristics with American soap operas — such as slim budgets, melodramatic acting, and an emphasis on love and betrayal — there are actually a few important differences between the two.

Here is a quick guide to what makes a telenovela, what distinguishes a telenovela from a soap opera, and where telenovelas come from.

What is a Telenovela?

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Like American soap operas, telenovelas are serial dramas that are aired most nights of the week. Telenovelas often rely on family and interpersonal drama for the bulk of the plot, and the tight shooting schedule lends itself to a visual style reminiscent of the fixed camera and studio look of soap operas.

What Makes a Telenovela Different from a Soap Opera?

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However, unlike soap operas, telenovelas do not run indefinitely. Telenovelas tell a scripted story that is longer than an American miniseries but shorter than a normal drama series. Because of the rapid airing schedule, the story is told in the length of time that a single season of a normal drama series might air, about six to eight months.

Another thing that separates telenovelas from soap operas is their overall appeal. Whereas soap operas are aimed at female viewers, telenovelas are designed to appeal to the whole family. This difference leads telenovelas to air during primetime hours, as opposed to soap operas’ usual daytime air slots. It also means that telenovelas have a much wider viewership than soap operas – over 50% of Latino viewers in some markets watch the most popular telenovelas.

History of Telenovelas

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While the two differ today, telenovelas and soap operas share some history. Both formats are descended from radio serials, known as radionovelas in Latin America, and both formats were pioneered by the Colgate-Palmolive company as a format to advertise soap to housewives.

Telenovelas began to diverge from soap operas in the 1950s, especially following the Cuban Revolution, which started in 1953. After that event, U.S. companies could no longer do business in Cuba, which left entire production teams of writers, actors, and show runners without the influence of American money to direct their work. These professionals began to make their way to various television production studios throughout South America, and the genre began to develop in earnest.

Where Do Telenovelas Come From?

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Most telenovelas come from Latin America. Almost every major economy in South America produces its own regional telenovelas, although the two largest producers by a large margin are Brazil and Mexico. Some other countries and regions that produce telenovelas include:

  • Argentina
  • Colombia
  • Puerto Rico
  • Chile
  • United States

While telenovelas are most associated with Latin America, they are not exclusively made or enjoyed there. In the 1980s, telenovelas gained a foothold in Europe, although their popularity waned in the 1990s. Asian markets have been very successful for telenovelas since the turn of the century, and Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are all seen as major influences on the Asian telenovela industry.

Telenovelas Today

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Another reason that telenovelas have demonstrated international reach is that the stories they tell are easy to repackage and resell in a new market. This leads to many of the more successful telenovelas being adapted and reshot for a new audience. You can see this happening in the American market quite often, with some even crossing over into mainstream success. One of the most recent examples of this is "Ugly Betty", which enjoyed a worldwide audience of over 2 billion.

So, the next time you’re looking for a new show to binge-watch on your favorite streaming service, think about giving a telenovela a shot. You might just find a whole new way to enjoy an engaging story.