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Telenovelas: educational television?

9 April 2011

I leave it to Ganchoblog and Aguachile to keep track of the score or so of politicos who all have announced that they’re running for President.  For PRD it looks like either Marcelo Ebrard or Andres Manuel López Obrador; for PRI, Enrique Peña Nieto (or somebody else) and for PAN… any number of second-string politicos who want to be the sacrificial goat for the discredited Calderón Administration.

At this point, none of the PAN candidates worth taking too seriously, although one of them, Alonso Lujambio, the Secretary of Public Education, made an interesting observation that sounds laughable, but might not be such a bad idea.  Probably desperate, as all PAN and PRI candidates seem to be, to get support from Televisa (or at least some recognition that candidates other than Enrique Peña Neito exist) Lujambio recommended telenovelas as an educational tool.

While it needs to be noted that El Universal and Televisa are two of the largest media organizations behind “Initiativa Mexico” which many believe is more designed to align the major “mainstream” media with the government (in return for certain legal concessions to these financially powerful media groups), it is interesting to note that this is not really a new idea.

As J. Fabián Arellano and Nayeli Durand wrote in Friday’s El Universal, telenovelas were used to sell government projects (including education) in the past, and social issues are still woven into telenovela plots… with the enthusiastic support of the “telenovelarati.”  My translation:

In the late 70’s, Miguel Sabido took a gamble, when he produced Ven comigo, the first “educational telenovel.”

Sabido claims that thanks to his melodrama, nearly a million people enrolled in the federal adult literacy program, Plan Nacional de Educacíon de Adultos.

Secretary of Public Education Alonso Lujambio’s  statement that the soaps could be a “powerful tool” in fighting illiteracy, has some basis in the experiences of Sabido, who produced four “social entertainments”:  telenovelas integrating Mexican social development project into the plot.

The director and playwright says, for example, that the second of these efforts, Acompáñame, played an integral role in the so-called “Mexican population miracle,” the successful effort to promote family planning.

But that was back in the 1980’s. At this time, Sabalo believes “Television should balance cultural identity programming and entertainment.”

Another figure in the development of the educational telenovela was filmmaker Jorge Fons, who directed El que sabe, sabe, produced by the Department of Public Education (SEP for its initials in Spanish).  “Although the plot revolved around small town intrigue, the characters all meet in the house of a woman who conducts literacy classes. The story also was an education in how to conduct these classes.”

Fons is now working on Juan Osorio’s  Una familia con suerte.  He is convinced that “Television can and must improve. We have to assume that people are intelligent and observant of what they watch on television.  We must work to make better products.  It’s not easy, but we need to take on the challenge.”  Telenovela producers and actors agree that “social entertainment” needs to return to the small screen, although they indicate a belief that this is the responsibility of the government and the networks to foster such programming.

Carla Estrada, creator of hits such as Pasión and Alborada, says she is willing to collaborate on a project of this kind: “As long as you can include the message in a playful manner.  That is, not losing the entertainment value, and putting the message in a way people can take it without too much difficulty.
Ultimately, education is not the media’s concern, but is crucially that of the family.”

Daniela Romo started in the telenovela business about the time Miguel Sabido first introduced his ideas to Televisa.  “Those programs stirred things up, but they worked somehow.  The statement by the Secretary (of Public Education) is good and necessary, but today, the messages are different, as we face new challenges,” she commented.

Ana Martin, another witness to the birth of the educational telenovela said, “The idea is perfect, and I’ve want to sell one idea: people want to see characters than can admire, doing positive things.  I support the concept and am ready to help.”

Producer Rosy Ocampo, who has included health and prevention messages in her stories, includes heath and prevention messages in her stories.  “If they want to do something in this regard, and they designate the person in charge of the project, I would sit down with people who would enable me to produce a worthy product that would be really useful.”

Pedro Damián also tries to portray social issues in his melodramas, but without sacrificing “story profitability.

“The important thing to keep in mind is that an marketable and entertaining product doesn’t have to lack a conscience.  The successful youth-oriented telenovelas are an ideal market for these kind of messages.  If the companies coordinate with the government, we could be as successful as the master, Sabido.”

One needs to recognize that during the 70s, 80s and 90s, the Mexican government was a (generally) benign authoritarian state.  While not directly censored, television programming was a state monopoly at the time, and, it was only with the relaxation of state control (and the democratic opening of the 1990s) that telenovelas could safely include sub-plots that indirectly criticized the state.

Ernesto Alonzo, the father of the telenovela, modeled the form on the 19th century serial novels of Balzac and Dickens.   Really, Oliver Twist is no more “over-the-top” than say, La Loba:  Fagan, though in a different social class, is no less fascinatingly villainous and manipulative than Doña Prudencia (Regina Torné, channeling Joan Crawford… and the Bride of Frankenstein).  Colorful villains and twisted plots involving unrecognized heirs, don’t prevent telenovelas (or serial novels) from sneaking in didactic material… although that material is usually not in the form of state propaganda.   In my book, Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, I wrote that:

The simple plot line (poor girl overcomes obstacles to get rich boy) could obliquely criticize society and the government, for example: the villain is a corrupt politician in one. Or it might highlight social problems: a housing shortage in Mexico City in the late 1990s had one telenovela heroine searching not just for love but for an affordable apartment for her mother.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with building into the plot a story-line about finding adult education classes or housing assistance, but I am concerned that what the Secretary is proposing is that the telenovelas, in part, substitute for serious education and — more seriously — that telenovelas should uncritically present government objectives.  That is not entertainment… that is propaganda.

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