A Telenovela Revolution

A Telenovela Revolution:

Desperate for Viewers, Networks Hope the World’s Favorite Dramas Will Turn Into Hits in the U.S.

Inside Business Section
June 5, 2006

Producer Galán is bringing the classic romance stories she loves in Spanish to English, in a deal with NBC

If the story of the beleaguered broadcast television networks were turned into a telenovela, the plot might go something like this: a rich, handsome man loses everything he holds dear (ratings) after his glamorous wife (the fickle American viewer) forsakes him for the sexy new men in the neighborhood (cable, TiVo, video games – she gets around). He discovers the secret to rejuvenation in his own backyard, eventually winning back true love and regaining his lost fortune.

Consider yourself warned. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are all developing English-language versions of the over-the-top Spanish-language soap operas known as telenovelas. Unlike American soaps, telenovelas air in prime time, with a cliffhanger at the conclusion of each hour-long episode, and end after a few months. The networks are hoping to find in the telenovela a new format, like reality TV, that will reclaim viewers who have soured on sitcoms, police procedurals and, well, reality TV. “The reality-TV genre is growing stale, and networks are looking for a new, low-cost format to fill that gap,” says Monica Gadsby, a Hispanic-media expert and the CEO of Tapestry, a marketing firm in Chicago. If the shows connect with viewers, the US will soon have a taste of the melodramatic highs and campy lows that virtually every other country in the world had loved for years.

NBC has ambitious plans for American telenovelas, with a two-year deal to option all the novellas aired on its sister network Telemundo, which is also owned by parent company General Electric. “Our role is licensing formats to them, hand-holding, consulting,” says Alfredo Richard, a spokesman for Telemundo. The stories are almost always some variation on star-crossed lovers united in the end. “It’s a couple that is trying to have a kiss, and there’s a writer in the middle that doesn’t let them,” says Patricio Wills, a longtime telenovela writer and now head of production for Telemundo Studios.

So far, NBC has chosen just one Telemundo tale for development, “Body of Desire,” and tapped as executive producer Nely Galán, a TV veteran in both Spanish and English whose most recent hit was the Fox plastic surgery-reality TV spectacle “The Swan.” “Body of Desire” spins the story of a wealthy man married to a beautiful woman; the man dies and is reincarnated in the body of a laborer, only to find that all the people in his former life are phonies. The supernatural twist, Richard says, will appeal to viewers hooked on shows like “Medium.”

At it’s core, the telenovela is selling the same idea that made shows like “The Bachelor” so popular: “You really think that there is one soul mate for you,” Galán says. “It’s a universal desire.” But the scripts need adjustment. “It’s very commonplace for a protagonist of a novella to be a virgin until she gets married,” she says. “In the US, it would seem ridiculous.”

Telenovelas will force networks and viewers to change their habits. A typical telenovela that runs daily for months could require more than 100 episodes, in contrast to two dozen weekly episodes for a season of a prime-time network drama. That has always been a sticking point with US TV executives, who have been skeptical that American prime-time viewers would watch so many episodes of one show in a week. “It requires an enormous amount of dedication,” says Michael Schwimmer, CEO of Sí-TV, a cable channel that caters to young Latinos in the US.

One distributor, however, is convinced that Americans are ready to commit. “Reality TV has demonstrated that the American public will get behind a character for a short period,” says Bob Cook, president of Twentieth Television, the development and production unit of Fox. Cook has adapted two telenovelas to air in September: “Table for Three,” a love triangle involving two brothers in a Mafia family, and “Fashion House,” starring Bo Derek as the powerful queen of a fashion empire. Each show will air daily for 13 weeks, with recap episodes on the weekends.

The shows will be the centerpiece for MyNetworkTV, a new network formed by Fox out of 139 mainly small-and middle-market stations, from Topeka, Kans., to Utica, N.Y., that were left behind after the merger of UPN and the WB networks. Just as UPN featured African-American shows and the WB turned into a home for angsty teenage dramas, MyNetworkTV could make its mark with the telenovelas, its first original programming. “We’re purchasing several years’ worth of novellas,” Cook says. If those two don’t find an audience, he’ll try others. “We believe in this.”

Telenovelas are TV’s fast food – inexpensive and filling – but networks will have to find a way to raise the production values to the gourmet standards American viewers take for granted. An ordinary family drama like “7th Heaven” costs $2 million an episode, while a show like “24,” with location shots and elaborate special effects, is “like a feature film” that airs every week, Galán says, and can cost even more. With so many episodes to produce, telenovelas are shot on the cheap: they use video, not film, and an entire run might take place on just a handful of sets.

Galán promises that NBC’s telenovela will look and feel as polished as anything else in prime time, but telenovela producers will be spending only an estimated $100,000 to $500,000 an episode. They won’t have to pay for superstar salaries (comedian Ray Romano took home $2 million an episode), expensive writers (“adapters” are paid as little as $50,000 a year) or elaborate shoots. Twentieth Television has plotted out the story arcs for both of its shows and will shoot them jointly to create more efficiency, Cook says. By just changing the lighting, for example, producers can use the same set for scenes in both shows.

The other networks have not jumped into the telenovela’s arms quite as eagerly. ABC is hedging its bets, developing a remake of a telenovela from Colombia called “Yo Soy Betty, La Fea (I Am Betty, The Ugly One)” that transformed itself into a global hit. Local versions of Betty’s ugly-duckling story won huge audiences in Germany, India and Russia, but ABC will air it as a once-a-week prime-time comedy. As the network responsible for “Desperate Housewives,” the closest thing to a network telenovela today, ABC has a good shot at creating a successful hybrid. CBS is enlisting a writer who knows a thing or two about melodrama – Nicholas Sparks, author of “The Notebook” – to develop a homegrown telenovela.

So, will this new path lead the networks back to true love? Telenovelas always have a happy ending. Television isn’t so easy.