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A Love Affair for Latino Viewers

Patricio Wills, Telemundo’s head of production, once described the telenovela as the story of “a couple who want to kiss and a writer who doesn’t allow them to for 200 episodes.”

It’s true, telenovelas aren’t exactly high art. Why then have they grown into a multibillion-dollar business, with sky-high ratings on Spanish-language television and a global audience of 2 billion viewers in 100 countries?

Telenovelas rank in the top 10 programs among Hispanic viewers and comprise nearly 90% of Univision’s and Telemundo’s prime time schedules. And while both networks have markedly different strategies—Univision imports its dramas, Telemundo favors in-house production—telenovelas continue to be the force that defines the shape of Spanish-language TV in the U.S.

“Hollywood Latino” As much as 40% of Telemundo’s revenues come from commercials within telenovelas. While Univision pays approximately $105 million in licensing fees to Grupo Televisa, which supplies most of the Univision programming—including its entire prime time telenovela offering—the programming generates 40% (or more than $500 million) of Univision’s revenue.

The growing popularity of the format can also be reflected in several joint ventures born between local and Latin American networks, which has spawned a new Spanish-language TV industry in Miami—the “Hollywood Latino.”

Fonovideo Productions, Venevision International, Telemundo-RTI, and even Mexican telenovela powerhouse Televisa are all producing in the area. In 2005, eight telenovelas were produced in Miami, up from one five years ago.

Telemundo, a unit of NBC Universal, is, in fact, working on starting its own acting academy. And it has already started a scriptwriting class (see box at right).

The shows are sexy and romantic, but the popularity of the telenovelas among Hispanics goes beyond the titillation factor. Some in the industry contend that the plotlines—which usually center on characters overcoming obstacles like poverty, class conflict and institutional instability—are what keep viewers glued to their TV sets. The problems on the screen resemble their own.

And while this may be true, there is another possible factor. In a study that examined the content of prime time Spanish-language programming available in the U.S., Jack Glascock, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Illinois State University, concludes that the lure of Spanish-language programming is mainly that it allows new arrivals in the U.S. “to maintain ties to Latino” culture.