Love, tears, and five sisters named Juana? Must be a Mexican soap.

Mexico's popular telenovelas have fended off an onslaught of reality TV programs, and have even left their mark on the new shows.

The plot - some might call it improbable - of "The Juanas," the new telenovela hit on Mexico's Azteca TV, features five beautiful sisters: all named Juana, all living together, and all identifiable by identical moles in the shape of a "J" on their bottoms.

Juan Pablo Medina plays Elisio, the wealthy mayor's son, and a love interest of one - and sometimes two - of the Juanas in the make-believe land of "Tierra Caliente," or "Hot Land."

"No, its not exactly reality TV," laughs the affable young star, sipping a cappuccino in his no-frills trailer, waiting for his next scene to be called. "But this is Latin America - and here, we are into getting away from reality."

Indeed, despite a major assault by reality television here in recent years, telenovelas, or prime-time soap operas, like "Tierra Caliente" are hotter than ever. In fact, what is actually happening, says David Grinberg, a writer and producer of telenovelas in Mexico, is the "telenovelization" of reality TV.

"Viewers, especially those classes that make up the majority of the telenovela audiences, don't seem interested in seeing regular people for long," says Mr. Grinberg. "Maybe it's because their reality here is not so great. No one wants to know how long a random character has been stuck in traffic. They want to see their familiar stars and watch the maid get the master of the house."

For example, when viewers seemed to tire of Mexico's version "Big Brother," where average Josés and Marias live together under the gaze of dozens of TV cameras, the show's creators at Televisia came up with "Big Brother VIP," in which your favorite telenovela stars shared bathrooms and argued over dish washing. The US Spanish-language network Telemundo, in turn, came up with a new take on "American Idol" - "Protagonistas de Novela" - in which contestants stage a scene from a current telenovela and are judged by professionals who award or subtract points based on their performance. Meanwhile, over at TV Azteca, they have taken the opposite approach, giving winners of "La Academia" parts in, not surprisingly, their telenovelas.

The Cinderella plot

At first, when reality TV shows started coming into the market here, admits Arturo Martinez, a director at TV Azteca, the networks thought they had to "do something new" with their telenovelas to compete. Variations on theme were tried: a historical telenovela, a comedic one, even an interactive one, where viewers could choose the ending by going online or calling in.

But the stories never strayed far from the staple Cinderella plot: A poor girl - always a virgin, and usually a maid - falls for the master of the house and, at the end, wins over both him and his millions. And it was always told, mas o menos, in the same way: with endless twists of events, corny dialogue, fountains of tears, cheap props, somber lighting - and a happy ending. And it was that much-worn, much-loved story - and the way it was told - that eventually brought back the audiences who had flirted with the exploits of reality TV's housemate No. 4 and musical contestant No. 6 and bachelor No. 22.

The undisputed champ

Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and others all make telenovelas, but Mexico is the undisputed leader of the pack, putting out dozens of shows every season and keeping millions of viewers - mainly women, predominantly from the lower-middle and lower classes - in front of the TV screens nightly, sighing. The most recent ratings from both Televisia and TV Azteca show that the top-five shows on each were all telenovelas.

It's notable also, adds Grinberg, to see where telenovelas - which are exported to more than 120 countries worldwide - are most popular. "The biggest fan clubs are in places like Russia, Malaysia, and many Eastern European countries - not in England or France," he says. "Maybe that says something about the reality of those countries as well."

Ivan Guillermo, who plays a poor carpenter named Miguel in "The Juanas," has a much simpler interpretation of the success of the genre. "Mexicans, we love to cry. It's part of our education and our culture," he says. "The telenovelas allow us to cry, and they reflect all the hopes and dreams and concerns of those who watch them.... How could reality TV do all that?"

Medina is now back on the set, waiting for Juana (No. 3) to walk down the cobblestone path to him in front of all his amigos. It's a dream sequence in which the lovely Juana in question takes off her long wooly coat to reveal herself in a skimpy bikini and kisses him passionately.

Miguel, looks on longingly - it could never happen to him. But eventually (shhh, don't tell!) the carpenter will get the beautiful Juana and the wealthy boy will be snagged by (gasp!) the illegitimate Juana. A little far-fetched maybe. But, says Medina as he heads over to chat with some teenage fans, that's what the crowds want.

And that's what they'll get.

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