BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week the hit Spanish-language soap opera or telenovela "Yo Soy Betty La Fea" aired its eagerly-awaited final episode on the U.S. network Telemundo. Produced and originally aired in Colombia, "I Am Betty the Ugly" as the title translates drew tens of millions of fanatical viewers throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Joining me now is Kevin Baxter, arts editor for the Miami Herald and a former Latin TV reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Kevin Baxter, welcome to On the Media.
KEVIN BAXTER: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now dozens of telenovelas are produced every year. Why has "Betty" become such a huge hit?
KEVIN BAXTER: Well "Betty's" become a huge hit because it really breaks the mold for what a novela is. It's comic in a lot of ways; serious; and it also-- it's a feminist novela; there's a moral to it. It's pretty much the anti-novela if you want to look at it that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you go through point by point what makes it the anti-novela?
KEVIN BAXTER:Well the woman who plays the lead, Betty, in, in this novela is actually a 27 year old model. She's quite attractive. But in the show she's been made to look at ugly as possible; hence the name "Yo Soy Betty La Fea" -- I Am Betty the Ugly. And she wears glasses, braces; she has her hair slicked down. She's incredibly clumsy. She trips all the time. But her one redeeming quality is that she's a mathematical whiz, and she works at a fashion house in Colombia, and she's really the brains behind the operation. And over time we're taught to love Betty and to respect Betty-- by who she is - her character - her brains and not her physical appearance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the reaction to Betty in Colombia?
KEVIN BAXTER:Well the reaction's been incredible. There was one episode when Betty was offered a bribe. The bribe was a sizable bribe and it was sort of the answer to her dreams. The producers let the bribe sort of sit there for a week and had Betty sort of stewing over what to do, and members of the Colombian Parliament called in the producers and said you have to have this end this way -- Betty has to do the right thing. There were public opinion polls taken, making sure that Betty stayed on this moral path that she had chosen, and, and the Colombian politicians made no bones about the fact that they consider this to be a, a, a serious national issue; that if, if Betty could be corrupted, then Colombian society as a whole really had no chance, and, and that's how important it's become.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well the U.S. Spanish-language network, Telemundo, airs Betty over here, so what's the reaction been to Betty in the U.S.?
KEVIN BAXTER:Telemundo could not have asked for a better recipe for getting out of its dismal ratings problems. Two years ago they had about eight percent of the prime time Spanish language viewership in the U.S. With Betty La Fea, for her time period, they now have a 30 percent share. In Miami it's the number one show in its target demographic which is 18 to 49; it's the number one show in any language. It's beating Friends; it's beating Ally McBeal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Over time Betty becomes more and more attractive; the hair fluffs up. The eyeglasses go away -- suddenly she's beautiful and yes, this week she gets the fairy tale ending -- she gets to marry the boss's son and, and from what I've read, this is an enormous let-down to many viewers of Betty the Ugly. Why do we have to define it the same way time after time -- happiness is beauty and a really good husband?
KEVIN BAXTER: Yeah, it is sort of a traditional ending, but it's a traditional ending that's been turned upside down. In most of the novelas it's the man who makes the choice and he has the competing lovers. In this case it's Betty. Betty had everything going for her, and at the end it got to the point where we really didn't care that she had become beautiful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks.
KEVIN BAXTER: Well thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin Baxter is the arts editor for the Miami Herald and a former Latin TV reporter for the Los Angeles Times.