Rafael Amaya: Lord of the Ratings

On the night of June 20, NBCUniversal-owned Telemundo made ratings history by reaching a whopping 1.4 million adults 18-49 in the 10 p.m. timeslot, almost doubling the numbers for archrival Univision and outperforming ABC and CBS among key demos.

The feat would later help propel Telemundo to become the No. 1 U.S. Spanish-language broadcaster for the first time in its history.

The program in question was not the typical primetime telenovela Spanish-language networks tend to air at night. It was the new-season premiere of El Señor de los Cielos, an action-packed Telemundo “Super Series” starring Rafael Amaya, a Mexico-born telenovela hunk who plays the lead character of Aurelio Casillas, a ruthless drug lord.

Casillas is a fictitious character, but El Señor de los Cielos is based on the life and work of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the former leader of the Juárez Cartel, who rose to power through the late 1980s in Mexico and came to be known as the “Lord of the Skies” (el señor de los cielos) for his use of Boeing 727 jets to transport cocaine from Colombia to Mexico.

Now in its fifth season, El Señor de los Cielos continues to deliver record-breaking ratings for Telemundo, and it has made history in another way. A few days before the new season premiered, Amaya brought his Aurelio Casillas character to season two of Queen of the South, the English-language remake of Telemundo’s La Reina del Sur airing on sister network USA. Sounds confusing? Not really. It’s all part of a bigger NBCU strategy to crosspromote shows and talent across several networks, in English — and Spanish.

“It was the first time in history that the character — not the actor — did the crossover,” said Amaya during a recent interview with KTLA Los Angeles. “But it was something that happened very naturally, very organically.”

Amaya, 40, will be presented with the 2017 Award for Outstanding Achievement Award in Hispanic Television at the 15th annual Hispanic Television Summit in New York on Oct. 18.

Beyond Drug Lords

Rafael Amaya might not be immediately recognized by non-Spanish-speaking audiences in the U.S., at least not yet. Still, his popularity in Latin America — and among U.S. Hispanics — has earned him an impressive following on social media, where he is not only very active, but well-known for engaging personally with his fans. At press time, Amaya had more than 2.4 million followers on Facebook, almost 2 million followers on Instagram and about a half-million Twitter followers. The secret behind his success?

“Rafael Amaya is one of those idols in the Hispanic market that, even if he plays a hero, a heartthrob or a killer, you will always sympathize with him,” said Armando Correa, editor in chief of People en Español and a longtime observer of Latin celebrities. “His characters are flesh and bone. Think about a mix between Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford … with a dash of Michael Fassbender.”

A native of Hermosillo, Sonora (Mexico), Amaya moved to Tecate, Baja California, at age 5 and later went to study in San Diego, moving comfortably between Mexico and the U.S. and from English to Spanish. His artistic career began in music, as a member of groups such as Banda Palapa and the super-popular Garibaldi. He made the transition to acting with his telenovela debut in La Casa de la Playa (2000), followed by Sin Pecado Concebido the following year.

A ‘Super’ Break

Amaya has appeared in several telenovelas and had starring roles in a few Spanish series, but his big U.S. break happened in 2013, when he began filming El Señor de los Cielos, a so-called “Super Series.” That’s a term coined by Telemundo to describe programs that embrace darker subject matter and feature more controversial characters — and plenty of action. Instead of a traditional telenovela, which stretches to 120 episodes and comes to a definite conclusion, Telemundo’s Super Series are shorter (40 to 80 episodes) and run over multiple seasons (think Breaking Bad).

Unlike traditional telenovelas, these series are fueled with tons of action, higher production values and many more exterior shots.

“We are very proud of Rafael’s growth and evolution as an actor and are fortunate to have him as part of the Telemundo family,” Telemundo Network and Universo Channel president Luis Silberwasser said. “His performance in El Señor de los Cielos has broken ground in Hispanic television.”

At press time, Amaya could not be reached for an in-person interview. The reason for this couldn’t be more understandable: On the heels of two devastating events — a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Mexico and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — Amaya had joined a group of Telemundo stars to take part in a company-wide event to raise money for those affected by both tragedies. All while working nonstop to film El Señor de los Cielos.