Telenovelas Ready To Take Over For American Soap Operas

Since January 13, the death toll for American soap operas totals four in just three years, as One Life To Live aired its final episode.

 For a genre named literally for its ability to sell household cleaning products to housewives, this means serious business for advertisers.

If the trend continues, by the year 2017, we could be living in an American soap opera-less society, but take heart. A new serial drama is waiting in the wings to take over where soap operas are leaving off. While American networks are struggling with sagging daytime ratings, Spanish-language soap operas called telenovelas are breaking records across the language divide.

On December 26 of 2011, for example, the two-hour finale of Univision’s “La Fuerza del Destino” (“The Power of Destiny”) had 8 million viewers nationwide, more than any other network in its time slot.

In fact, Doug Darfield, senior vice president of multicultural measurement for the Nielsen ratings company, says that in the United States, telenovelas are “far and away the most popular type of program among households who speak mostly Spanish.” Darfield adds that a telenovela conclusion, (the story arc in a telenovela lasts one season rather than going on indefinitely), gets ratings comparable to the Super Bowl. Those are some pretty big eyeballs.

But how will these Spanish-language programs fare with the non-Spanish speaking set? Starting in 2012, Univision will put English-language closed captions on all of their primetime telenovelas. The network used CC3 to close caption their hit telenovela “Eva Luna” in English last year. That 2-hour season finale pulled in 9.7 million viewers in April of 2011.

Meanwhile, rival Telemundo who has always trailed behind Univision in ratings, began using the English-language closed caption strategy years ago to focus on the second and third generation, more acculturated, more bilingual Latinos that Univision was mostly ignoring. Going one further this fall season, Telemundo launched several shows including telenovelas that feature a smattering of on-camera English.

According to a report released last year by Scarborough Research, bilingual Hispanics are those who speak more English than Spanish or speak both equally. This group, according to the study, comprises the majority of the U.S. Hispanic population at 82%. Most importantly, this group has more money to spend than the recent immigrants who speak mostly Spanish. With 12% of acculturated Hispanic families earning $75,000 to $100,000 a year, this is the group you want to attract. Now that Spanish traditionalist Univision has caught onto the idea, you can expect a lot of copycats.

With fun creative like we’ve seen from Old Navy which leverages the telenovela audience to engage with its brand online, the sky’s the limit for marketers and this burgeoning new bicultural media opportunity.