Telenovela: history, transformations and resilience

The feuilleton, marked by the fictional and entertainment tone, appeared in France in the 1830s. According to Bragansa (2007), with the consolidation of the bourgeoisie, the purpose was to expand the newspaper market. The feuilleton was located in the footer of the newspaper’s front page and was a space destined to varieties. Soon the commercial potential that space would have in the very structuring of the newspaper and the relationship with the daily news became obvious. It is also from that time the first advertisements were inserted in the pages of newspapers, emphasizing the beginning of a market press. This relationship would be fundamental in the constitution of the cultural industry in the 20th century, present in a mass culture produced, for example, by the North American soap opera, which emerged in the 1930s, and the radionovela, which also bears a strong connection between the public and content and later the telenovela. Until this day, Brazilian telenovelas, in so many ways descendants of the feuilleton, still air between newsreels and advertisements in the linear programming flow of corporate television.

In Latin America, the feuilleton absorbed the French matrix but addressed issues of the local culture. Silva (2010) analyzes the repercussions in Brazil, where the feuilleton novel represented literary modernity through authors such as Jose de Alencar and the later migration of the genre to radionovelas and then telenovelas. The romantic sensibility - in its imbrications with the feuilleton and melodrama - remained present. According to Silva (2010), in the 19th and 20th centuries, melodrama undement several transformations in search of ways to captivate various audiences, including those who began to attend the theatre in the wake of social transformations. Melodrama can adapt to the moment and the language and modernize itself to the taste of the times, always with a commercial bias. The serial aspect of the feuilleton along with fictional tools such as cliffhangers and the purpose of entertaining are still present in telenovelas. So are the characteristics of the melodrama narrative, such as its archetypes, heightened and polarized actions and dialogues. Brook (1976) observes that melodrama is radically democratic, striving to make its representations clear and legible to everyone. So do the telenovelas.

Even after almost 70 years of existence the telenovela continues to be the central narrative of a massive audience in Brazil, attracting millions of viewers daily. Telenovelas are also exported to several other countries. Hamburger notes that: “The export of Brazilian telenovelas demonstrated the possibility of reversing transnational flows of information and culture” (2011). The telenovela has been influenced in several ways that have made its narrative, language and format genuinely Brazilian. Hamburger (2011) ponders that Brazilian professionals sought to distinguish their work from other Latin American productions. According to the author, whereas Mexican telenovelas are more melodramatic, Brazilian telenovelas have a more naturalistic trait, investing in shooting on location and making use of colloquial language. Brazil has imported texts from Cuba, like many other countries, for radionovelas and afterwards for the first telenovelas. Nevertheless, because they were considered excessively dramatic, productions were only transmitted after undergoing adaptations.

Like the Brazilian telenovelas, the US soap opera also has a melodramatic matrix and uses narrative tools with origins in the feuilleton, such as cliff- hangers. In addition to these characteristics, soap operas also have in common with Brazilian telenovelas - and most Latin American telenovelas - the fact that they have had a business model since the beginning supported by advertising, mainly of products associated with the home and the female audience. In Brazil, advertising of brands and products also played an important role, leveraging and sustaining daily TV drama. Almeida (2002) investigates the association of telenovelas with female audiences, which would be an unfolding of older associations between the feminine and specific cultural productions, such as the feuilleton and melodrama, demonstrating that there is great commercial interest in this symbolic construction.

Telenovelas in the early years in Brazil were supervised by advertising agencies, and authors like Ivani Ribeiro and Walter George Durst worked for companies such as Gessy Lever or Colgate-Palmolive. In the book Autores (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008), Benedito Ruy Barbosa recalls: “I was the one who gave orders because I worked for Colgate, the company that sponsored everything. It was like this until [TV] Globo began to take care of productions, hiring authors.” Ruy Barbosa was one of the many authors hired by Globo. However, Brazilian telenovelas also have many differences from soap operas. The main one is that they have a beginning, middle and end, while soap operas have no final prediction. Days of Our Lives, from the American broadcaster NBC, for example, is one of the most extensive works of television dramaturgy in the world: it began airing on NBC in 1965 and ended in 2013. The dramaturgy revolved primarily around the saga of two families, the Hortons and the Bradys. One of the actresses, Suzanne Rogers, celebrated 40 years of participation in this soap opera in 2013. In addition to this distinction, in Brazil, telenovelas are aired in prime time, while soap operas occupy a less prestigious slot in the afternoon. Telenovelas in Brazil can be current, period or even set in an imaginary universe, whereas soap operas are usually set in the present day. Silva (2010) notes that the American stories at first adopted the style of the 19th-century English domestic novel, presenting middle-class family conflicts from a female perspective, while productions for radio and later for television in Brazil were adapted to the interests of Latin American women.

Over the years in the history of the Brazilian telenovela, the primary influence that singularizes it from others is, in fact, the audience that watches and engages with the content, giving it new interpretations. It is the viewer who ultimately stirs changes in the telenovela, a product of commercial television that depends on the massive audience because of its business model. Therefore, the interpretation by the broadcaster of what the viewer “wants” directly influences the content and programming. Authors need to anticipate themes that will be dear to the audience in the near future to develop a telenovela that will interest, provoke and interact with this audience.

In this chapter, the main characteristics of the teleno vela - themes, narrative, format and language elements - will be addressed. It will discuss influencing agents that have acted throughout telenovela history, with emphasis on the viewer. The purpose is to analyze the transformations, attributes and elements that remain in this narrative through time.

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