As with other countries that were previously colonies of Spain, the Philippines produces various telenovelas or soap operas that follow dramatic storylines with familiar clichés. They regularly feature rags-to-riches stories, amnesia tropes, damsels in distress, action-loaded car chases, explosions, baby switching, and traumatic childhoods. Expressive actors perform with theatrical screams, raised voices, and over-the-top catfights with slapping and hair pulling.
While some Filipinos would consider these dramas exaggerated and prefer foreign shows, telenovelas have delighted fans from countries around the world, especially in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. The Filipino telenovela effectively promotes the Philippines and its culture overseas to an appreciative fanbase.
Foreign Influences in Philippine Television
As a multicultural country with a long history of colonialism, foreign occupation, and global trade, the Philippines is no stranger to foreign influences. Mainstream Filipino culture fuses Asia and the West. Along with foreign food, religion, and customs, Philippine television also reflects foreign programming.
American television series and movies frequently show in the country, often in their original language as many Filipinos are fluent in English. Filipinos also enjoy watching Japanese anime series from superhero and giant robot franchises like Kamen Rider. Latin American telenovelas such as Pasión de Gavilanes from Colombia have also gained popularity, and producers have since remade them into Filipino telenovelas. During the Mexican telenovela craze, superstar Thalia visited the Philippines, performing songs in the local Tagalog language to entertain screaming fans. Filipinos also celebrated stars from Taiwanese dramas like Meteor Garden (Boys Over Flowers) and Hana Kimi. Then the Korean Wave hit, with Korean drama stars selling out fan meets throughout the Philippines. Due to the country’s obsession with Korean media, several Filipino entertainment companies have begun remaking Korean shows. Moreover, Thai and mainland Chinese dramas have also made airwaves in the country.
Due to this excessive influence of foreign television, certain Filipino politicians and personalities have often advocated for regulating these shows. They complain that foreign shows are hurting the local entertainment industry, but many neglect the fact that Filipino dramas, in their own right, are making waves in other countries. If those in the Filipino entertainment industry want it to thrive, they should be investing in overseas programs to help gain more revenue. Then the Philippines may find opportunities to promote itself in other regions.
Popularity of Filipino Telenovelas Overseas
In the year 2000, the Filipino telenovela Pangako Sa’Yo (The Promise to You) aired in the Philippines and abroad. Due to its widespread popularity, Kristine Hermosa and Jericho Rosales became huge stars overseas as well as in their native land. As the first Filipino telenovela to air in Kenya and Tanzania, Pangako Sa’Yo attracted adoring fans across Africa. The show was also in high demand in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and mainland China. Cambodians named babies after Jericho Rosales’s character Angelo Buenavista and produced a Cambodian remake of the show. Even Mexico has promised to make an adaptation of the Filipino telenovela. Pangako Sa’Yo paved the way for other Filipino shows such as Lobo, Got to Believe, Dolce Amore, Wildflower, Forevermore, Doble Kara, and On the Wings of Love to reach audiences overseas.
Oftentimes, it shocks Filipinos when people from other countries tell them that they are huge fans of their local telenovelas. For instance, a woman from Senegal bumped into Filipino celebrities Enchong Dee and Maja Salvador during their vacation in France. She called them Ethan and Margaux, their character names in the once popular telenovela Ina Kapatid Anak (Mother, Sibling, Child), and told them how much she was obsessed with their show. Surprised at their popularity in Africa, Dee and Salvador expressed their desire to visit Senegal and other African countries to meet their fans.
While I was studying abroad in Germany, a Zimbabwean woman told me how her sister and mother were obsessed with Filipino television series. A friend of mine who worked in Indonesia had coworkers tell her that they were big fans of the Filipino singer Christian Bautista. Other friends remembered the time when Malaysians obsessed over Jericho Rosales when he co-starred with Malaysian actress Carmen Soo in Breakway. Malaysian girls also loved Filipino stars Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla. Another friend studying abroad met a Tanzanian girl who gushed over Filipino telenovelas such as Lobo.
Many Filipinos are quite ignorant of their popularity as the media tends to underreport the successes of telenovelas in other countries. Filipinos would rather gain recognition from the West, Japan, and South Korea than from fellow Southeast Asian countries and other developing countries. As such, many deem acknowledgment from the latter as insignificant.
Opportunities for Filipino Culture
If the Philippines would like to create revenue for its entertainment industries or even promote its culture in different countries, it should not take the overseas popularity of telenovelas lightly. South Korea has grown its industries through worldwide promotion of entertainment stars and the sale of cultural products and merchandise. Similarly, the Philippines can also have its local stars promote themselves abroad and visit fans overseas. Filipino stars could promote brand products on foreign billboards. They could also appear on foreign programs and gain a foothold in overseas television. Even Filipino musicians could perform overseas concerts. When a country influences other nations through its cultural attraction and appeal, it exercizes soft power. Exactly this opportunity beckons for the Philippines.
By targeting people who have become interested in the Filipino culture through media, the Philippines can also promote its languages and cultures in global centers. Russia, mainland China, Japan, and South Korea already have universities that offer Philippine studies as a major and have produced students who can even speak Tagalog well. Scholarship and tourist opportunities may follow for fans who want to see the country.
Any recognition, from whichever country, presents an important opportunity. The Philippines can gain economic revenue and soft power from paying attention to the recognition they are gaining through their telenovelas.