Thursday, October 15, 2015

Telenovelas with 20 minute chapters - possible?

I was thinking a while about which topic to write about this time. Production is such a large aspect, but at the same time there are so many rules and strongly regulated processes. 
I did some student films myself in the last two semesters and I know how long filming can take. It seems sheer impossible to me to film a whole episode (or at least the equivalent of the scenes, not necessarily for the same episode) in one day, about 45-60 minutes of audiovisual material that is „broadcast-ready“. 

That got me thinking - what if we would have 20 minute telenovelas instead? American TV shows are doing it, we have the 45 minute formats, more like drama/crime/thriller shows and the 20 minute comedy formats. So why not try a 20 minute telenovela? 

After some searching around the web, I found they actually tried it. They are various examples. The Telemundo Production El Rostro de la Venganza had, with the exception of the first and last chapters, only 20 minute episodes. And most interestingly, Pablo Escobar also was originally broadcasted in 20 minute episodes, also on Telemundo and was cut into a 43 minute episode format for the international market. Both shows did not have horrible ratings, so what is the hold up? I would like to analyze the pros and cons looking at the artistic and industrial aspects, considering that telenovelas are an art product that is produced at industrial speed. 

So what would be advantages of 20 minute episodes?
- on the production side
The production schedule: I if you only have to produce 20 or maybe 30 minutes a day, that makes a huge difference. It will make everything a little bit more relaxed and even the days a little bit shorter. 
- on the artistic side
You would have more time to create the scenes and put attention to detail and composition. The actors have more time to study their lines, which are fewer and could maybe even rehearse more. There wouldn’t have to be as much sequence shots because there would be more time to cut and intercut.
Also, the writers don’t have to deliver as much. To come up with 45 minutes of episode is a lot more at the same time than to come up with 20 minute episodes. They have the chance to create a new pace, maybe even to put a different spin on it. 

What would be the disadvantages then?
- on the Production side
If you only fill half an hour of airtime, you need to fill the other half hour as well. You need the money from the commercials. So if the show goes really well, you would need another 30 minute program that goes equally well to fill the spot and that draws an audience to earn the same amount of money in an hour. If that would be another telenovela, you would have to pay a lot more employees to work on that one, a whole new production and writers team. That is a big expense. 
- on the artistic side
A famous German author from the 18th century, J. W. Goethe, once wrote: „I’m gonna write you a long letter because I do not have the time to write you a short one“. That sounds weird at first glance, but I think it really has its merit. It its a bigger challenge to condense something into a short time/fewer pages. Because the question remains: Would we still put the same amount of action, of plot points, into an episode? Or would there just be less to an episode and then maybe the whole novela would be longer? 
We can’t forget that every episode needs a cliffhanger and important plot suspense before it goes into commercial breaks. So the whole dynamic of a telenovela is definitely changed with shorter chapters. It will be inevitable to change the pace! 
But is it really a chance like described above? Did we not agree that the emotional aspect is the most important part of a telenovela? If the episodes are shorter, I feel inevitably the dialogues are gonna be swifter, more on point. The moments of staring into each others eyes, saying romantic things, love scenes... Those are the aspects that are going to get cut to fit the plot into a shorter format. So will we still be as attached to the story and its characters? If you look at American shows, the short formats are almost exclusively comedic. Would it even still be a telenovela?

It seemed to have worked for Pablo Escobar, who had great ratings in Telemundo. But we also already talked about it being more of a Narco Novela that really does not focus on a big love story, maybe the one between Pablo and his money, that certainly does not need scenes of longingly staring into each other’s eyes. 
In a classical telenovela plot and pace, maybe an audience would not get attached to the characters, they would feel a show would „fly by“ and they would not really have time to „reel“ in the emotions. Remember how we mentioned despecho as a central element? How are we supposed to imagine a man longing for his woman, being disconsolate about her disappearance, the end of their love, in a fast-paced version?

If you had the choice, would you rather watch a 20 minute (30 minutes with commercials) or 45/60 minute chaptered telenovela?


  1. This is an interesting question. My immediate answer would be no, I like telenovelas in their 45-minute iterations because that's the formula I've grown used to for drama shows. I see the half-hour variant as something that works for comedy, where plots tend to occur more in isolation and be resolved more quickly. But thinking about it more carefully, I started wondering how much it would actually change the course of a telenovela to deliver it in half-hour installments. Obviously it depends on the show, but in my experience, episodes as we see them don't tend to have "resolutions" -- something is revealed, sure, but usually there's some sort of cliffhanger. When you think of each episode of an extension of the last, with the same plots carrying over, you begin to wonder if it would really matter that much.

    As far as why it hasn't really been done on a large scale before, I think producers are wary of messing with a winning formula. But also, from the perspective of quality, I wonder if the shorter format might inspire more drama just for the sake of drama -- after all, that's twice as many episodes to make people tune in for if you want to tell the same length story. I think the hourlong format is safe, both from a commercial and a production standpoint, and if the writers can keep churning out an episode a day, who am I to tell them to do it differently?

  2. Hi Lisa,

    I really appreciate your insightful blog post. My favorite part is when you brought in the quote from J.W. Goethe, stating, "I'm gonna write you a long letter because I do not have the time to write you a short one." This really resonates with me because studying public relations and learning to be an effective communicator has made me recognize the difficulty of condensing your thoughts into the most direct and straightforward message. By discussing the pros and cons of 20-minute telenovela episodes from 2 perspectives, you have shed light on every aspect that crossed my mind when I read the title of your post.

    While you mentioned it has been done before, I think it is unnecessary for the industry to explore this 20-minute option further because at the end of the day, in order to tell the story they want to tell, a 45-minute episode every day is what they need. In order to create such an intricate plot and emotional connection that most successful telenovelas embody, the longer episode with multiple cliffhangers is ideal.

    It was very interesting to learn about the craziness behind telenovela production, but at the end of the day, I think everyone involved would tell you they're passionate about what they do and they woudn't have it any other way. I think sometimes the things that stress us out the most are the ones that bring us the most satisfaction in the end.