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NYC TV Week: Novelas Rewrite the Rules

What appealed to USA Network about the telenovela format – in the form of upcoming drama Queen of the South – is what appeals to viewers of Spanish-language, action-oriented “super series” and the new category of bio-musicals on Telemundo: compelling heroes and stories that attract young, multicultural audiences.

“We look for really distinctive, noisy concepts that we feel like will break out,” Alex Sepiol, senior vice president, original scripted programming, at USA Network said during a panel session at the Hispanic Television Summit on Thursday at the Park Central Hotel in New York City. “Stories that have urgency to them, that have really memorable characters at their core. Which is why we’re so excited about Queen of the South with Teresa Mendoza. It’s such an incredibly memorable character, she’s so bold and fun and just unique, that we feel like she will make a tremendous impression on the marketplace.”

Queen of the South is adapted from a novel, but that novel was previously made into a hit novela, La Reina del Sur, on Telemundo. The lead character, Teresa Mendoza (played by Alice Braga, pictured, in the USA version), starts out as a victim whose boyfriend, a drug dealer in Mexico, is murdered. She flees to America, though, and ends up learning the trade and becoming a power in the drug cartel.

Perla Farias, Telemundo’s vice president of novela development, shared the panel stage with Sepiol and talked about how the novela genre has over time morphed into several categories in the network’s primetime. They include, along with telenovelas and super series, bio-musicals (like Telemundo’s new hit Celia), bio-dramas and romantic comedies, she said.

The NBCUniversal-owned Spanish-language broadcaster currently has 12 different stories in different stages of development, including the faster-paced, shorter-running super series that Farias and Telemundo are credited with creating. They are heavy on action, but have melodramatic elements, Farias said. This past April, the season-three return of El Señor de los Cielos (Lord of the Skies), a super series about an imprisoned drug lord, set a record for a Telemundo series premiere.

“We like to say amongst ourselves that the [super] series is ‘los narcos también lloran,’ which means ‘the narcos also cry,’ ” she said. “We get to see these violent characters, but at the same time we get to see the human frailty and passions. I think that’s what makes them so compelling.”

Alan J. Sokol, a former Telemundo and InterMedia executive who’s now CEO of Hemisphere Media Group (which has Spanish-language cable channels including telenovela channel Pasiones), said Telemundo deserved applause for championing faster-paced iterations of the genre.

“The way people live today doesn’t necessarily lend itself to watching six months of five-day-a week novelas,” he said. Unitarios that present a self-contained story within an hour are also a format with great potential, he said.