MEXICO CITY — In Mexico, the global king of soap-opera production, there's nothing unusual about a television drama featuring a tryst between a young domestic servant and the wealthy man - perhaps a politician or an industrial magnate - she works for.
In a Latin America where the rich-poor income gap is the widest in the world and where domestic help is common, such dreamy story lines are popular fare.
But when one of Mexico's new afternoon talk shows glared into homes around the country with the theme, "My husband got our servant pregnant," it was a sign of something very different for Mexican television. No longer a kind of time out from daily life to indulge in sentimental dreaming, the new shows (complete with slaps and hair-pulling that would make Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones proud) are a crude spectacle based on some too-real families' true-life dramas.
The programs are particularly raising eyebrows - and ire - because Mexico has special media laws to safeguard family values.
Touting daily themes like "Man by day, woman by night," and "My children only care about their inheritance," the talk shows are attracting large afternoon and evening audiences. Having burst onto the national scene in May through Mexico's two major networks, the programs now occupy more than 40 hours a week of programming.
Meanwhile, sociologists are debating what the arrival of such shocking and often vulgar programming on national television means, even as members of Congress, health officials, religious leaders, and human rights officials are calling for the shows to be moved out of family viewing time slots. Some simply want them cancelled.
"These shows are part of a transition we are living in Mexico, especially in the electronic media, to a wider freedom of expression,"says Rafael Resendiz, a communication specialist at Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM). "But the talk shows are an abuse of that new freedom, an exaggeration that has to be corrected."
That "correction" is probably coming. Last week, representatives of Mexico's two major networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, met with government officials and tentatively agreed to move the shows to adult-viewing hours, though no date for the change was specified.
But despite the government protest, the shows continue to air - a testament to Mexico's expanding freedom of expression.
It hasn't always been this free. Just three years ago, when the two networks debuted no-holds-barred real-life crime shows, President Ernesto Zedillo's dissatisfaction was enough to have them cancelled.
The talk shows also demonstrate how Mexican society, often characterized as conservative and closed around the family, has evolved - some would say degenerated - in recent years. Seven years ago, when veteran Miami-based talk-show host Cristina Saralegui came to Mexico, an uproar among religious leaders and family organizations prevented a planned taping of the Cristina Show in Mexico.
Now some of the Mexican talk shows' harshest critics say the programs wouldn't be so bad if they had better-prepared hosts and made some attempt at education or mediation - like the Cristina Show. "There is a place for programs that take up the themes of people's daily lives, something closer to what Cristina does, but what we have now in Mexico is entertainment at the price of denigrated individuals," says Ivn Restrepo, a Mexico City media analyst.
Harsher in his criticism, UNAM's Resendiz says Cristina is simply a "light" version of the same questionable format: "entertainment based on the problems of others."
And Resendiz says the talk shows end up convincing viewers that these social situations are commonplace. Noting that one of Mexico's shows is titled "Even in the Best of Families," Resendiz asks, "What's the message ... if there's physical abuse or a father sleeping with his daughter?" He says people end up thinking such circumstances are acceptable
Many specialists even doubt that the participants and their stories are real - especially after a recent scandal over a "news" video aired by TV Azteca of a robbery that turned out to be staged.
The shows' producers say Mexico's intelligentsia takes the programs too seriously. Federico Wilkins, producer of Televisa's "Even in the Best of Families," says his show is a "jungle of emotions and colors," neither moralizing nor "social work."
But Resendiz counters that the shows are particularly questionable in a country like Mexico with a low average education level, especially among afternoon TV viewers. "Programs like this are more likely to discourage people from getting beyond their problems," he says.
Mr. Wilkins says what really bothers the elite is how the talk shows give Mexico's marginalized poor their day on the TV screen. And it's these masses, he says, who are entertained seeing stories similar to their own.
Wilkins's show attempts to poke fun at more serious debate programs with experts. For example, in "Best of Families," there's athree-member "panel of experts": a transvestite, a midget, and a mute who randomly eats popcorn between offering commentaries on the show's participants.
But what is presented as entertainment is seen by others, like Resendiz, as a morbid use of people. "For the networks, these shows are justified by their high ratings," he says. "But ... we still have our Federal Radio and Television law, which says programming should care for the integrity of the Mexican family and the dignity of Mexicans.
"It's hard to see how these shows fulfill that."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society