LEILA FADEL, HOST:
We're going to stay in Latin America. The pandemic has also affected how people watch TV there, as it has pretty much all around the world. But we're not just talking about a lot more eyeballs on streaming services. In Mexico, the pandemic has led to a resurgence of the telenovela, the corny TV melodramas that for decades ruled the country's airwaves. Recently, though, ratings were down - way down.
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FADEL: Then came the pandemic, and the audience numbers soared again. Natalie Kitroeff wrote about this for The New York Times, and she joins us now from Mexico City. Welcome.
NATALIE KITROEFF: Thanks.
FADEL: So first, just - I have to ask, why were telenovelas on the? Decline. Aren't they a staple of Mexican television?
KITROEFF: Yeah. This is iconic programming. It became one of the nation's most important cultural exports. It was a really big thing. And, you know, it started to decline because it was kind of declared obsolete. I mean, these are these soaps that are based on drama and love affair and face-slapping and operatic baritones. And, you know, they were declared too simplistic to compete with much higher brow, higher budget programming from Netflix, HBO - I mean, the kind of thing that, you know, "The Sopranos" kind of programming. It was seen as a loser as a business model.
FADEL: So the irony is that in quarantine, a lot of people are turning away from on-air TV here and choosing to stream entertainment online. So what accounts for this surge in TV viewership, the telenovela in Mexico?
KITROEFF: Well, the telenovelas air on broadcast channels. So in a country that's being hammered by the economic crisis as well as the health crisis, this is really accessible for the average Mexican family. But, you know, there's something else at work here, which is that they are easy to watch. They are comfort food. This is not a show that, you know, will kind of raise your hackles. This is calming. It brings some tranquility into your day, which, you know, people here don't have a lot of these days.
FADEL: So the mac and cheese of TV.
KITROEFF: Yeah, Basically. I mean, it's nostalgic. It's the stuff that you watched with your mom on the couch, you know, when you were growing up and that people are still watching with their families, you know, crowded into houses not able to leave in self-quarantine.
FADEL: and has the pandemic also changed the demographic of who's watching the telenovelas?
KITROEFF: Interestingly, Yes. I mean, young people - the ratings are going way up with that crowd. And, you know, I talked to a lot of folks who are making fun of these shows on TikTok and Twitter and Instagram, and they say that they're not watching them but the numbers say differently. They have been tuning in. And a lot of young men have actually been tuning into these shows.
FADEL: And is this new content? Have the telenovelas studios been churning out new episodes or is this rerun territory?
KITROEFF: They have been able to continue to produce new episodes through the pandemic. But it's also the reruns. I mean, it's both. You know, you've seen the finale for "Te Doy La Vida," which is one of the most popular telenovelas, had an estimated audience by the network of 10 million people, which is the most watched telenovela episode since 2016. So you're seeing - I mean, it's off the charts. It's it's pretty remarkable.
FADEL: And how has the pandemic affected filming if they're putting out new content? Is there social distancing? What are the measures they're taking?
KITROEFF: Well, there was a brief pause mandated by the city government here. But then they restarted. And yes, you know, there's no more kissing. There's no more sex scenes. There's much less physical intimacy. I mean, there's no touching. All the conversations happen at a distance. Folks are doing their rehearsals in face masks and face shields. I mean, you can imagine that that kind of cramps the style a bit, but the viewers don't really notice the difference. I mean, when you aren't touching or seeing anyone in your daily life, just to see two humans interacting on the screen, that can be pretty cathartic.
FADEL: So what are some of the shows that have been most popular during this pandemic? You wrote about one that involves miracles that solve people's problems, which seems like a good theme for 2020.
KITROEFF: That's right. So there's the regular kind of love story ones. I said "Te Doy La Vida" and "Destilando Armor," "Rubi." These are kind of more classic novellas. But "La Rosa De Guadalupe" or "The Rose Of Guadalupe" is the one that I focused on. And it's not even a novella. It's really a melodrama. And it follows the same plot every single time. People get into trouble. They pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is a major religious figure here, the most important perhaps. And a miracle happens. They feel - a kind of a saintly wind comes across their face, and their problems are solved. And it happens every single episode. There's no variation. And as you can imagine, in 2020, that kind of resolution, that kind of neat ending, happy ending is something that I think has given people just a moment of respite.
FADEL: Natalie Kitroeff is a New York Times correspondent based in Mexico City. Thanks for speaking with us today.
KITROEFF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.