Fernando Gaitán, vice president of production and content at Colombia's RCN-TV, took the classic story of the ugly duckling and turned it into the most popular soap opera the world has even seen.
Yo Soy Betty, la Fea-known among American English-speaking viewers as ABC's primetime soap, Ugly Betty-holds the Guinness world record for the most successful soap opera in history.
Gaitán, 51, attributes Betty's success to its universal themes set in modern times. "There's a universal and cross-cultural existence of feminine vanity," says Gaitán, who answered questions for this piece via written questions in English that were then translated back from Gaitán's Spanish. "The theme of rejection of the 'ugly woman' is something that unfortunately occurs in all cultures in a similar way."
Gaitán got his professional start as a print journalist in his native Colombia, working for El Tiempo (the country's New York Times) and Semana and Magazín al día. As a teenager, he attended a highly competitive high school in Bogota, Liceo Leon de Grei" . While he was there, he won a Latin American writing competition. He then skipped college to go right to work, although later he was awarded two Master's degrees in recognition of his accomplishments.
Along the way, Gaitán met Bernardo Romero Pereiro, a respected Colombian writer and producer, who had been actively combing the country for new writers.
As a print journalist, "my favorite genre was chronicles and research, and I always wanted to experiment fusing these with dramatic storytelling," Gaitán says. "Many people recognized me as a good storyteller, gifted at telling stories both verbally and via my writing.
"[Romero's] chief of press found me in the newspaper and invited me [to participate in the search]. Then I began to learn scriptwriting, because I had never done it before. However, I was a quick study and soon began writing comedies, which was how I first made my living in TV. I later moved on to soap operas."
Gaitán worked at Romero's studio for a bit, then began producing comedies for other Colombian producers as well. His first primetime hit came in 1990 with Laura por favor, a comedy he wrote for RCN TV, his current employer. At the same time, he was working on a dramatic series that also was successful, Azíºcar.
In 1992, Gaitán won his first award for writing and producing TV shows for La Fuerza del Poder, a show about government corruption.
Gaitán's first big syndicated hit came in 1994 with a worldwide smash, RCN's Cafí con Aroma de Mujer, which was eventually syndicated to more than 100 countries. The show is about a woman, Gaviota, who works her way up through the ranks at a coffee plantation to become the first woman to become a major player in the male-dominated field.
Internationally, two high-rated versions of the show were produced: TV Azteca's Cuando Seas Mia and Televisa's Destilando Amor.
In the late '90s, Gaitán produced two more shows-Guajira and Carolina Barrantes-before launching Betty, la Fea in 1999.
Betty, la Fea tells the story of a young woman who is not considered conventionally pretty but who is very bright and holds a master's degree in economics. She goes to work at fictional Colombian fashion house EcoModa as assistant to the president, Armando Mendoza, who is also the son of the company founder and a well-known womanizer. Betty is hired precisely because she is not pretty, and thus won't tempt Armando. That doesn't stop her from secretly falling for him and helping him rescue the company from dire financial straits.
The idea for Betty, la Fea came from a direct experience of Gaitán's, in which he witnessed an executive treat his secretary poorly, only to realize he could barely function without her once he had finally driven her to quit.
"He only then realized that this woman whom he ignored, yelled at and treated very badly was actually the one who was solely responsible for maintaining order in his life," says Gaitán. "From this experience, I got the idea for Yo Soy Betty, la Fea.
Betty was a smash hit in Colombia, where it aired from 1999-2001. It has since been broadcast in more than 90 countries and adapted into 21 different versions in places such as Russia, China, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, Germany, Mexico and the U.S., as ABC's Ugly Betty.
"Ugly Betty was a universal classic that worked all over the world," says Ben Silverman, chairman and founder of Electus, who adapted Yo Soy Betty, la Fea for ABC. "Colombia reminds me of the Hollywood of South America, and Fernando is one of its leaders."
Since Yo Soy Betty, la Fea, Gaitán has developed, written and produced another novella, Hasta que la Plata Nos Spare ('Til Money Do Us Part). And, as a programming executive at RCN, he also works "closely with the writers and producers of all the novelas, series and programs" on the network, he says.
After more than 20 years in the business, Gaitán thinks that Hollywood could learn something from Latin American TV productions.
"The standard business practice that North American television follows of filming the complete season at one time is a huge risk," he says. "They don't seem to think it is possible to produce episodes while airing the product at the same time, as we do in Latin America. But lately, due to the demands of the television industry...the U.S. is beginning to see the value and possibility of allowing the pulse of on-air TV to affect production, as we do here in Latin America."
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