Less Sex, More Viewers: Pandemic Boosts Mexico’s Flagging Telenovelas

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s love affair with melodrama was over.

After decades of reigning supreme over prime time slots, telenovelas, the country’s iconic soap operas, were losing viewers. Industry executives declared them obsolete, too corny and simplistic to compete with higher-brow, higher-budget shows.

Now, thanks partly to the pandemic, the telenovela is roaring back.

Confined to their homes, millions of Mexicans have devoted their evenings to the traditional melodramas and other kitschy classics, finding in the familiar faces and guaranteed happy endings a balm for anxieties raised by a health crisis that has left at least 43,000 dead and millions unemployed.

“There’s no fear, no horror, no misery,” said Enrique Millán, 75, of the telenovelas that claimed his undivided attention after the pandemic put soccer on pause. “I can imagine what’s going to happen at the end of each episode. There’s no stress.”

Ratings for the shows have soared in recent months, reviving a genre that shaped generations of Mexicans and became one of the nation’s most important cultural exports.

The onset of a global economic downturn has made such programming more attractive by default. Telenovelas air on broadcast channels, making them more accessible than Netflix or premium channels for the average Mexican family.

But their draw also comes from a specific brand of uncomplicated storytelling that eases the boredom of life in quarantine while calming fears and delivering the emotional intimacy that daily interactions have lost to the virus.

“I turn on the television, time goes by and you don’t feel like you’re doing nothing,” said Minerva Becerril, who watches telenovelas and other melodramas every evening with her 90-year-old mother in her house on the outskirts of Mexico City. “It brings a moment of calm and you watch love scenes, which I like because I’m a romantic.”

During the pandemic, Ms. Becerril began her evenings with Te Doy La Vida (I Give You Life), a novella that features a love triangle, and then turned to La Rosa de Guadalupe (The Rose of Guadalupe), a drama with religious undertones. She sometimes tunes into Destilando Amor (Distilling Love), but doesn’t like Rubí, a reboot of a 2004 soap based on a short story she read in a comic book from the 1960s. “The version in the magazine was better,” she said.

The resurgence of melodramas in Mexico has been a boon to Televisa, a one-time media monopoly that has taken a beating from streaming services and other competitors in recent years.

During the second quarter, 6.6 million people watched Televisa’s flagship channel during prime time each evening, when telenovelas and other melodramas air, up from around five million during the same period in 2019, according to the network. Ratings for the channel increased twice as much as overall TV viewership in Mexico from May to June.

Based on Nielsen ratings, Televisa estimates that more than 10 million people watched the finale of Te Doy La Vida, which aired earlier this month, becoming the most-watched episode of a telenovela on the network since 2016.

“Suddenly the ratings are going up,” said Isaac Lee, a former executive at Televisa and Univision. “Nobody knows if this is a moment, a flick, a trend or if the telenovela is back.”

When Mr. Lee became head of content at Televisa in 2017, the network was in crisis. Incomes had been rising and internet access spreading across Mexico for decades, luring people away from the signature melodramas that had been Televisa’s bread and butter for half a century.

Industry executives wanted more action, more violence and bigger budgets — the ingredients that seemed to explain the success of dramas about drug traffickers on Telemundo and series like Narcos on Netflix.

Mr. Lee began binge-watching all of its programming and soon realized what should have been obvious: He wasn’t the target audience. And neither were the other company executives who had been making decisions about the shows.

“I decided not to watch the content,” he said, “because I knew that I would screw it up.”

After many conversations with viewers, it became clear that melodrama just needed a makeover, he said. Televisa began to modernize its telenovelas, toning down the face slapping and operatic baritones in favor of characters who talked in normal voices about real problems.

Their North Star was La Rosa de Guadalupe, a decade-old Televisa drama that had long been underestimated by the network’s own executives.

La Rosa de Guadalupe is not a telenovela, with established characters and conflicts, but it is the pinnacle of melodrama. Each hourlong episode tells a self-contained story that always follows the same arc: People encounter problems and pray for help to the Virgin of Guadalupe. A white rose appears, a saintly wind blows over their faces, and soon their troubles are over.

What the show had that the network’s soaps did not was cultural currency. The themes La Rosa de Guadalupe addresses are often ripped from the headlines, like the episode devoted to a family separated by deportation from the United States, or the one about teens who were consuming liquor by pouring it into their eye sockets — a dangerous prank that was making the rounds on social media.

The drama was also attracting a surprising following among young Mexicans — though many swore that they, unlike their grandmothers, were watching ironically, to make fun of the far-fetched story lines. Tik Tok, Twitter and YouTube are full of memes and videos ridiculing the show.

“We think it’s absurd,” said Héctor Ortega, 22, who created the Twitter account ‘Out of Context Rosa’, where he posts short clips of the program’s most exaggerated moments. “I don’t even watch the program. I just saw all the memes and the impact that it has on my generation, which isn’t exactly the target market.”

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Of course, many of the haters turn out to be loyal viewers of the show. La Rosa de Guadalupe has seen huge growth in its younger audience in recent months, especially among male viewers aged 13-31, whose numbers have increased by about 40 percent compared to last year.

It is unclear, even to Televisa executives, whether the success can last through a pandemic that has taken physical displays of affection out of the contact sport that is a telenovela.

“There are no kisses, no hugs, no caresses, no scenes in bed,” said Miguel Ángel Herros, the executive producer of La Rosa de Guadalupe.

Any touching is “hands only, and conversations happen at this distance,” he said, gesturing at the roughly ten feet between his desk and his assistant.

Mr. Herros, 80, is filming for shorter periods, in locations that leave ample space for his crew. Actors have their temperatures taken when they arrive on set and rehearse with masks and face shields. And the network already had to send one actress, from the soap Te Doy La Vida, into quarantine after she tested positive for coronavirus.

But Mr. Herros doesn’t view the epidemic as a threat. La Rosa de Guadalupe stopped filming only briefly during the pandemic, on the orders of the city government, but quickly picked back up.

“I come to the office every day,” said Mr. Herros, sitting in an office adorned with religious iconography in the middle of Televisa’s expansive headquarters in San Ángel, just south of Mexico City’s center. “We haven’t stopped since March.”

For the time being, at least, Televisa has some advantages over streamers in Mexico. The company occupies more than a million square feet in Mexico City, where actors and crews can be kept in tightly controlled environments to contain the spread of the virus.

And when it comes to dishing comfort food to an anxious audience, there’s no match for the old-fashioned melodrama.

“Unlike Netflix, we give people certainty,” said Carlos Mercado, the show’s creator and head writer. “You know what you’re going to see on the Rosa de Guadalupe, even if you want to make fun of it.”