AN intriguing tale kept millions of viewers in the United States, Latin America, and Europe (particularly in Spain and Italy) glued to their TV sets last year. It wasn't a miniseries, a sitcom, or even the Clarence Thomas hearings, but a telenovela called "Cristal."
It's the story of Victoria Gomez, a domineering fashion tycoon, who is bitter over having abandoned Cristal, her illegitimate child. Years later, Cristal confronts her mother and then begins a torrid love affair. Soon, the synopsis says, "the plot weaves a formidable web of love and intrigue."
"Cristal" was shot for (a paltry) $15,000 per episode in Venezuela and ran for 246 passionate, drama-filled, and tear-stained hours to become the most popular Latin soap opera in history. In Spain alone, 11 million viewers tuned in daily to follow the fortunes of the headstrong Cristal as she bravely suffered fate, mother, and lover to the bitter end.
Part of a 30-year-old genre in Latin America, telenovelas are counterparts to America's long-enduring soap operas. In fact, strengthened by better stories, expanding budgets, and a more sophisticated outlook, the telenovelas are giving the omnipresent Hollywood soap operas a serious run for their money in the international market.
"We are making great progress," says James H. Stone, executive vice president of the Miami-based Coral Pictures, a leading producer and distributor of telenovelas.
Coral represents Latin America's most prolific producer of telenovelas, Radio Caracas Television in Venezuela. However, these days it also produces and co-produces smoldering Latin series on its own with Spain, Peru, and others.
"They are beginning to bite into a market that traditionally has belonged to us," said an American exporter of soaps who preferred to remain anonymous. "The telenovelas are increasingly well done, and the Europeans really seem to enjoy them," he added. "In addition, they cost a fraction of what it costs us to make soaps."
In 1991, it is estimated that in 10 Latin American countries, no fewer than 7,500 hours of telenovelas were ground out, most of them in Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico.
While Latin American audiences are totally captivated by the telenovelas, the purveyors of modern Latin manners and mores haven't made many inroads on the American air, though some smaller independent stations are beginning to show them for their Hispanic viewers.
On the other hand, Spanish speakers in the US have adopted the imported telenovelas as their favorite fare, and this popularity is now spreading to Europe where, with the exception of Spain, the Latin soaps are either dubbed or subtitled, a technique which European audiences accept.
From Scandinavia down to Turkey and Israel, in Germany, Italy, and in many other European countries, telenovelas are becoming the vogue.
"Our telenovelas really are quite repetitious," Nestro Garrido of Radio Caracas Television told the Monitor from Venezuela. "When it comes down to it, it's largely the same plot with variations. It's what people want, and what they expect."
While the basic themes follow the structure of the American soaps, there are some distinct differences: A telenovela has a carefully structured and predictable beginning, middle, and end.
Unlike "Santa Barbara" or "Dallas" or "General Hospital," it doesn't run on until public boredom sets in. The script is pre-written, the ending pre-determined.
It costs only $10-15,000 to produce an hour-long telenovela episode. Compare that with $150,000 per hour for a US soap.
Also, the telenovelas are modernizing and keeping pace with social development in Latin America. For instance, producers have begun to weave "messages" into the plots. In one case, rape featured in the story - a sensational departure that sent ratings skyrocketing.
In Mexico and other Latin American countries, family-planning concepts have been included in story lines. So has an antidrug message. In Spain, telenovelas have created a new afternoon prime time rather than at night.
In the US, key Spanish-language networks such as Univision thrive on telenovelas, not surprising considering the rapid growth of the Hispanic population. According to the 1990 US Census, over 24 million Hispanics live here, about 10 percent of the population. By the year 2000, that percentage should rise to about 13 percent. Coral Pictures's Sheila Hall says that the company's telenovelas are seen in 36 countries by 300 million viewers daily.