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Telemundo Hopes La Reina Still Reigns

Why This Matters: Telemundo not only had a hit show with the crime drama, but a series that pushed Spanish-language television to rethink its timeworn telenovela model.

La Reina del Sur returns to Telemundo later this month, representing a massive launch for the network and for the Hispanic community that’s been awaiting season two for many, many years. The show, starring Kate del Castillo as a ruthless-but-sympathetic drug mogul, debuted in 2011, and Telemundo calls it the most successful series in network history.

Millie Carrasquillo, president of Hispanic media consultancy Millie C., likens La Reina’s return to the Hispanic community to a new season of Game of Thrones for English-language viewers. “La Reina del Sur has revolutionized the way telenovelas have evolved into what are now commonly known as series,” she said. “It has revolutionized the way storytelling is done in Spanish-language programming.”

Lots of Action, Lots of Episodes

La Reina del Sur was adapted from a novel by Arturo Perez- Reverte. Del Castillo plays kingpin Teresa Mendoza, who disappears into the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program after taking down Mexican presidential candidate Epifanio Vargas at the end of the season. Under a new name, she is raising her daughter, Sofia, in Tuscany until her life takes an unexpected turn, as happens in telenovelas.

Season one averaged 3 million total viewers and 2 million viewers in the 18-49 bracket. Nearly 17 million watchers saw at least some of the first season.

Fully 63 episodes aired in season one, with 60 set for the sophomore season that begins April 22.

“It was jam-packed, night after night,” Carrasquillo said of the show’s pace.

Telemundo teased La Reina’s return with Special Edition Season 1, which started March 4. The budget for season two is substantial. It was shot in eight countries, with elements of the story taking place in Italy, the U.S., Russia, Romania, Spain, Colombia, Mexico and Belize. A season-two trailer, showing Teresa getting shot at, flying off a motorcycle and hanging by her arms in captivity, and daughter Sofia in a cage, tallied 8.1 million views in its first week, a record within Telemundo.

Marcos Santana, president of Telemundo Global Studios and executive producer/showrunner on La Reina, calls the series the most expensive, and most ambitious, ever done in this format. He’s thinking about what’s next. “La Reina del Sur is coming back during an important time in the TV industry, where we’re seeing new habits from consumers,” he said. “This show will give us a lot of information and background on how far we can go and what we’re capable of doing next.”

Super-Long Wait

La Reina paved the way for Telemundo’s Super Series category of action-oriented dramas and inspired an English-language adaptation, NBCUniversal sibling USA Network’s Queen of the South. (La Reina del Sur translates to Queen of the South.) When La Reina premiered in 2011, returning series were uncommon on Spanish-language TV. Telemundo executives had hoped for a season two for La Reina earlier, but El Senor de los Cielos, which premiered in 2013, was first to get a sophomore run.

Eight years between seasons is an extraordinary hiatus. Santana said the network waited while Perez-Reverte and Roberto Stopello, VP of telenovela development at Telemundo, worked out the expanded storyline. “The project was a very complex and expensive one,” Santana said.

Some wonder if the wait was so long that it pushed viewers to find new series to obsess about. “They were silly not to take advantage of the peak,” said Luis Galli, assistant professor of Spanish at New York’s New School, and an actor to boot.

Telemundo Global Studios produces the show with Netflix. Telemundo has exclusive rights to La Reina in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, while Netflix has OTT rights for the rest of the world. “Netflix extends the global reach of the show,” Carrasquillo said.

Indeed, La Reina’s reach is broad. Galli talks about American friends who say they are learning Spanish by watching the series, which is closed-captioned. Telemundo said La Reina is a hit with what the network calls “200%ers” — viewers who it said are 100% Latino and 100% American. For the first season, 44% of the La Reina audience spoke some English, more than the 34% who watch competition series Exatlon and the 39% watching novela Betty en NY.

Santana sees that bilingual number going up for season two. “I believe that, for this new season, we’ll see even more because the quality of the production is better and comparable to English-dominant series,” he said. “Also, season two will feature some incredible crossover talent.”

He mentioned del Castillo, who has appeared in Jane the Virgin and Weeds, along with Raoul Boca and Eric Roberts.

Del Castillo talked about her landmark role during a TCA Winter Press Tour panel in late January. “When we first presented La Reina del Sur, it was one of the first heroines that was really an anti-heroine,” she said. “She’s a woman who is flawed, and we haven’t seen that, at least not in Spanish-language television. This is a major opportunity for Telemundo and I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

Whether she’s a heroine or anti-heroine, La Reina del Sur shook up the telenovela paradigm by slotting a female character as the swashbuckling lead, Galli noted. “It completely changed how telenovelas were approached,” he said. “And it completely changed the way people see women.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.