Replete with clunky dialogue and stock characters, the telenovela is a nail-biting combination of soap opera and fairy tale, but it has proved once again to be the bedrock of Spanish-language television programming.
While Univision maintains its huge lead over Telemundo, its scrappy competitor, the distance between the two networks' ratings narrowed just a bit last month after Telemundo reverted to an entire three-hour prime-time block of new telenovelas.
Univision still dominates, drawing 83 percent of the country's adult prime-time Spanish-language viewing audience, while Telemundo pulls in slightly more than 16 percent. But based on statistics gathered during the November sweeps period, Telemundo's evening programming drew 293,000 adult viewers, a 29 percent increase over last November, according to Nielsen Media Research. During the same months, Univision's viewership declined by about 9 percent from 1.65 million adult prime-time viewers in 1998, to 1.5 million viewers this year.
Late last summer, Telemundo committed to three new one-hour telenovelas. Typically, the love stories blossom between a man and a woman from different classes -- perhaps a poorhouse girl and the son of the baron for whom she works. The lovers vow to be together, regardless of the social repercussions. Passion ignites. Dastardly schemes unravel, and chaos ensues. And, unlike English-language soaps that can run for decades, the longest lasts only about six months between premiere and final episode.
Telenovelas are the irresistible junk food of Latin culture, and they have always been the staple of Univision's programming. After attempting to recycle old English-language scripts from 1970s sitcoms and dramas, Telemundo decided to lean once again on telenovelas this year, and the move paid off, according to network executives.
In one of the new shows, "Catalina y Sebastian," gold-digging is a sport, as middle-class characters try to springboard into upper-class families. Catalina's father manipulates Sebastian, the handsome millionaire, into marrying his beautiful daughter, but when Sebastian's father realizes his new daughter-in-law loves the family coffers more than his son, he confronts Sebastian. The enamored groom agrees to test her love by pretending to be the family's hired help, and not a rightful heir. Catalina, of course, is repulsed by her new station in life, and she demands a divorce. Only after their split does she realize her true feelings for Sebastian.
One of the other new telenovelas, "El Amor de Mi Vida," is less traditional. It deals with the financial independence of a Latina, Ana (Claudia Ramirez), who leaves her husband after discovering he has taken a mistress.
The recent statistics are a contrast to the November 1998 ratings, when Telemundo made the ill-fated decision to air Spanish-language versions of scripts from "Charlie's Angels" and "Starsky and Hutch," which are owned by its Sony parent. Viewers were less than flattered with the dated material, and the ratings sagged. Under the direction of Sony, the network broadcast only one telenovela, and it aired from 10 to 11 p.m.
At the same time, Univision was roping in viewers as its telenovelas wound down, according to a Univision spokeswoman. In November, Telemundo's telenovelas were concluding as Univision's were just picking up speed, she added.
But the numbers do indicate that Telemundo has managed to hold its ground, and even gain some footing in a market overwhelmingly driven by Univision.
Nielsen communications analyst Vincent Nasso said the number of Spanish-language prime-time viewers overall decreased slightly from last year.
"We don't track individual people, it's just average viewership, so we can't say that Telemundo is stealing Univision viewers," he said. "But if one is going down and the other is up and the whole viewership pool for prime time is shrinking a little, it makes sense that some of those viewers are going to Telemundo."
Telemundo executives say they will continue with the "telenovela strategy," but they are also determined to appeal to younger, even bilingual viewers. This year, Telemundo has aired more original programming and is making less traditional choices by including a sitcom centered on a divorced mother of two, another family sitcom with two openly gay characters, and a kitschy afternoon talk show hosted by a handsome young priest from Miami Beach.