September 8, 2003

Latino TV Embraces Reality Shows


By Mireya Navarro

Los Angeles- Sweet and stunningly beautiful in her designer gowns, Minerva Ruvalcaba shows up on the premiere of Telemundo’s reality show “La Cenicienta”(“Cinderella”) Monday night with her family, two best friends, a priest and an astrologer, to all help her choose prince Charming.

But more significant, Ms. Ruvalcaba, 24, shows up with a past. She is twice divorced and the mother of a 2-1/2- year old girl, which is kept secret until she has whittled down 20 contestants to a few finalists and her suitors have fallen for her.

Among many Hispanics, “that’s the scarlet letter- if you have a kid you’re used merchandise,” said Nely Galan, a producer of the show. ” I want to change the way men see single mothers.”

In Spanish-language television even a genre known for mindless entertainment, like reality shows, can be transformed into a weighty one-woman morality play.
Cinderella as a marked woman is a twist influenced by the high art of the telenovela, the soap operas that dominate prime time in Spanish-language television. The premise that single motherhood undermines Cinderella’s desirability may be a bit politically incorrect, but it works similarly to a telenovela cliffhanger as audiences wonder not just who the lucky man will be, but whether that winner wants his prize.

This takeoff of ABC’s “Bachelorette” will be broadcast five nights a week in prime time. Officials in Telemundo, the NBC subsidiary that runs a distant second to Univision in the Hispanic market in the United States, say they hope to rake in telenovela-high ratings.

The show represents some of the cultural differences that reality television must adjust for the Hispanic market. Telemundo, which has led in reality programming and produces its own shows, has had to tread carefully as it serves up reality fare to a palate that is not only different but also tends to be more socially conservative.

Its version of Fox’s “Temptation Island,” for instance, drew complaints from viewers for its strong sexual content and its goal of tempting couples into cheating on their partners, said Mimi Belt, Telemundo’s vice president for program development. And the “American Idol”- inspired “Protagonistas de la Musica,” (“Protagonists of the Music”), whose winner was a Dominican livery cabdriver from the Bronx, did not have nasty commentary. Network officials said an audience mostly made up of immigrants trying to make it in the United States would not stand for judges humiliating contestants as Simon Cowell did on Fox’s “Idol.”

“What we’ve learned is that we’ve had a tremendous positive reaction to the aspirational aspects of these shows,” Ms. Belt said “Disrespect, viciousness, sarcastic humor don’t work for us. If conflict is out of hand, we may edit it out of the show.”

Liz Castelles — Heard, president of Castelles & Associates, a large Hispanic Advertising agency in Los Angeles, said that such preferences were also evident in the reality shows that English- speaking and bilingual Latinos watch in English. Dating shows like “The Bachelor” have done better than those with mean- spirited contestants like ” Survivor,” she said.

The Hispanic reality shows have garnered good ratings for Telemundo, occasionally beating the competition in some markets. Telemundo officials said that “Protagonistas de la Musica,” for example, drew 1.5 million viewers for its finale earlier this year and outperformed shows at the same time slot on Univision and English-language networks among Hispanic viewers in markets like New York.

Some in the advertising industry note that reality shows have been among the few bright spots in Telemundo’s overall ratings, which have not improved significantly since the network was bought by NBC last year. Univision captures more than 70 percent of the Spanish-speaking audience during primetime. Nielson Media Research says there are nearly 10 million households in the country where viewers watch in Spanish.

“La Cenicienta” is being closed-captioned in English and advertisers for it have been running on NBC to target bilingual to target bilingual Latinos.

Telemundo’s first foray into reality television was in early 2002 with “Protagonistas de Novela” (” Protagonists of Soap Oprera”), in which 12 contestants vied for a spot in that networks next telenovela. Telemundo is working on “Protagonistas de la Fama” (“Protagonists of Fame”), a spin-off for next year that will involve the search for multifaceted performers who can dance, sing, act and do comedy.

Univision, meanwhile, is testing the waters with “La Pesera del Amor” (“The Love Bus”), an import from Mexico similar to ABC’s “Bachelor” but featuring older contestants. It began broadcasting on Sunday night Aug. 24.