The Difference Between Soap Operas and Telenovelas

by Genevieve Van Wyden

"Guiding Light" was canceled for falling ratings as telenovelas were growing more popular.

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In the early 1980s, when Luke and Laura married on "General Hospital," 14 million viewers watched the nuptials. In contrast, as of 2011, TV serials' average audiences are ranging from 2.5 to 3 million viewers. Four soap operas have been canceled since 2009, while telenovelas, popular with Latino audiences, are growing in popularity.

Air Times

Soap operas air during daytime hours, when audience members may be at work. These dramas have historically been scheduled during the mid-morning to mid-afternoon hours. This was a decision of the advertisers of the day -- manufacturers of laundry and dish soap -- prompted by the beliefs of the time. Housewives and mothers were expected to stay home while the husband/father was the breadwinner. In contrast, Spanish-language stations schedule their telenovelas for prime-time viewing. These serials also don't appear to have the same stigma attached to American soap operas. As a case-in-point, when someone's problems are downplayed as worthy of a soap opera, the implication is that the issues the person is experiencing are embarrassing and undignified, notes the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Length

Telenovelas are just that -- novels on the screen, with a defined beginning, middle and end. In contrast, soaps are ongoing, sometimes for decades. "Guiding Light" began in the 1930s as a radio serial, then moved to television in the 1950s. This program ran continuously from 1935 until September 2009, when low ratings and production costs forced CBS to cancel it. The telenovela is deliberately written for defined air times -- generally from 180 to 200 episodes. This allows viewers who become interested in the characters and plot to make a short-term commitment to the storyline, whereas the soap opera is written so viewers either have to commit to watching daily installments long-term or reading a soap opera magazine to catch plot points they miss if they can't watch some episodes.

Cast Turnover

In American soap operas, it's common practice to recast popular characters. This becomes necessary if the show's producers decide an actor is not right for the character, or the actor leaves the show to take another role. When this happens, the character "dies," but her body is never found. She resurfaces, looking different and sometimes acting differently. In the telenovela, this rarely happens -- the only instances where it does involve an actor's illness or death.

Plots

Soap operas are often written with specific plot lines involving improbable romances between a working-class character and a well-off, privileged character. The lovers have to struggle against society and their own beliefs about themselves. Other plot lines include murders, incurable illnesses, addictions and accidents that change characters' personalities and lives, according to the Telenovelas-Carolina website. Telenovelas use the classics as inspiration for their stories -- "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Cinderella" and "Romeo and Juliet."

Demographic Reach

Soap operas are written specifically to appeal to teenage girls and women -- touching on relationships and all the variables that impact them. After the 1980s, soaps were written to appeal to a teen audience, bringing "supercouples" and high school plots to the fore. According to the FloridaBrasil website, the telenovela is written to appeal to a much broader audience -- not only women, but men, of all ages.

About the Author

Genevieve Van Wyden began writing in 2007. She has written for “Tu Revista Latina” and owns three blogs. She has worked as a CPS social worker, gaining experience in the mental-health system. Van Wyden earned her Bachelor of Arts in journalism from New Mexico State University in 2006.

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