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Love Stories with a Social Conscience

by Lindsey Scott


"Telenovelas are consumed not only in areas with large Latin American populations, but are booming where people need a social or cultural 'pick-me-up.'"

- Carolina Acosta-Alzuru


Rags-to-riches stories have transcended their Latin American origins and become an international ritual. Telenovelas — sagas of poor beauties, rich Casanovas, love and lust — have struck at the heart of the global television community and become the most-watched genre in the world, according to Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a professor of public relations at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Resembling American soap operas, these stories have a set number of episodes — as opposed to a series lasting for decades — and thus offer a distinct beginning, middle, and end designed to attract a larger audience.

“The really fascinating thing about these productions is their growth and wide exportation over the last decade,” said Acosta-Alzuru. “Telenovelas are consumed not only in areas with large Latin American populations, but are booming where people need a social or cultural ‘pick-me-up.’” For example, immediately following the breakdown of the USSR, the Mexican telenovela The Rich Also Cry became an overnight sensation in Russia, which now produces its own hit telenovela, Poor Anastasia.

“People like to watch these Cinderella stories because the characters remind them of themselves and give them hope for their own possibilities in the future. In Venezuela, watching is such a ritual that it has practically become part of the country’s basic diet — three meals and telenovela,” said Acosta-Alzuru, herself a native Venezuelan.

For example, Cosita Rica — “Sweet Thing” in English — was a popular series that often explored social reality. Long an object of Acosta-Alzuru’s professional interest, she had corresponded with its head writer, Leonardo Padron, about his objectives and techniques for interweaving social issues into their plots. So when she requested permission to study this telenovela in depth, she was granted unprecedented access to its production. Acosta-Alzuru spent 11 months working with the writers, producers, and actors to observe how they create social messages that are nevertheless part of solid entertainment for the audience, and she completed more than 100 hours of interviews with these TV professionals as well as with viewers.

During Acosta-Alzuru’s study, the telenovela’s male protagonist, a politician, faced difficulties that reflected the concurrent situation of Venezuela’s president — including a recall referendum, she said. Cosita Rica has also addressed issues such as the perils of political power, economic problems, teenage pregnancy, addictions and the everyday life of single mothers.

And the series has a real impact. “Its social messages have a measurable effect because they are couched in a ‘safe’ setting of love and humor, which allow the audience to absorb the message without feeling threatened,” Acosta-Alzuru said. For example, many more women in Venezuela began reporting spousal abuse to authorities after an episode of Padron’s El Pais de Las Mujeres addressed the issue.

Acosta-Alzuru published her findings in the book Nuestra Historia: Telenovela, Realidad y Crisis. The English version, Our Story: Telenovela, Reality and Crisis, is expected by the end of the year.

“It’s an interesting situation right now, because you have the country’s Hispanic population watching this genre while the Anglo population has remained isolated from it,” said Acosta-Alzuru. The U.S. entertainment industry will soon test the average American viewer’s taste for such fare, with NBC, CBS and ABC developing English adaptations of telenovelas to air in the coming year. “With the advent of these new, English-language, produced-in-the-U.S.A. shows, practically the whole nation will be exposed to this extremely popular formula. And because Americans love rags-to-riches stories, it will be interesting to see how this introduction affects our viewing culture.”

For more information, contact Carolina Acosta-Alzuru at


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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