The latest series of Ugly Betty just started on Channel 4 in the UK. What makes the programme interesting, apart from America Ferrara’s winning performance, is the institutional context of the production. Most American series that are exported to the UK are American in both the ‘property’ and the actual production. Ugly Betty is an adaptation (and development) of a successful telenovela from Columbia, Yo soy Betty, la fea. The original Colombian series was adapted in many countries across the world – Wikipedia lists 19 different adaptations as well as the American one which was co-produced by Salma Hayek’s company (she also guest-starred in the series).
This success is an indicator of the enormous popularity of the telenovela format (around 200 episodes, often broadcast in several episodes each week) in Spanish and Portuguese which has enthralled audiences across the world. This represents a ‘contra-flow’ of programming from some of the smaller industries in Latin America to markets in North America, Europe and Russia – as well as Africa and Western Asia (the preferred term for the ‘Middle East’). In other words, the flow is ‘against’ the general direction of American TV exports or cuts across that flow.
Telenovelas are unique as a TV format comprising a very long serial narrative in many episodes, but they are clearly related to the soap opera format – a continuous serial – and to the American series – episodes in ‘seasons’ of around 20 episodes. Soaps and series like Ugly Betty also derive from the cinematic family melodrama.
Similar programmes have long been popular in Arab countries with programmes drawing on the heritage of Egyptian melodramas. But now there is a new competitor in the Arab market. Turkish soaps/serials, drawing on familiar Muslim social and cultural contexts and dubbed into Arabic have been playing very successfully on Arabic-language satellite TV stations such as MBC from Saudi Arabia. On our sister blog at The Case for Global Film I’ve posted a commentary on the recent Turkish programme which attracted a final audience of 85 million from Morocco to Palestine. This flow of programmes across the world supported by audiences sharing common concerns about contemporary family life is an important indicator of aspects of globalisation that are not necessarily driven by North American/European media interests.