They’re Speaking Our Language

Despite the rocketing success of telenovelas (Spanish-language soap operas) around the world, and the U.S. Hispanic TV ad market’s reaching $6 billion, Hollywood has only recently “discovered” the format.

Syndicator Twentieth Television said last month that it will be selling “Desire,” a package of three English-language telenovelas that would constitute a year’s worth of programming, to TV stations at this year’s annual conference of National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE). Twentieth has already cleared the package on News Corp.’s co-owned Fox television-station group, representing 45% of the country.

“Americanizing” The Stories

Twentieth so far has shot two pilots: Table for Three and Fashion House, purchased from Colombia’s Caracol and Miami’s XYSTUS, respectively. The syndicator is considering one more telenovela to include in the first round of Desire sales.

“We’re in negotiations with all the major international producers,” which are located mostly in Latin America, says Bob Cook, president/COO of Twentieth Television. The studio purchases Spanish scripts and then having people known as adapters translate and “” the stories.

“That helps us save money on production because, instead of writing episodes as you go, you know what the end of the story is,” says Joanne Burns, Twentieth’s executive VP of marketing, research and new media. What’s more, knowing the story arc allows producers to shoot scenes out of order or shoot multiple story arcs simultaneously. That also conserves costs.

“One common thread I am hearing from the TV stations is that these novelas have been beating their butts for a number of years,” says Paul Franklin, Twentieth’s executive VP and general sales manager. “They so desperately need something to break through. They need something that’s new, that can make a difference and that can put them on the map in the marketplace.”

ABC and CBS are also working on telenovelas for summer prime time runs. Viacom-owned CBS is developing three novelas at sister company Paramount TV and working with Sony Pictures Television and FremantleMedia on adaptations of existing stories.

The format is familiar. Telenovelas run five nights a week for 13 weeks. Unlike American soap operas, which run for years, these stories are wrapped up fast and almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger.

ABC has picked up the script for Colombian hit Betty La Fea (Betty the Ugly, about a homely assistant who falls for her boss), produced by Ben Silverman, Salma Hayek and Jose Tamez. NBC picked up the Betty script in 2001; after it gave up, ABC tried to make it an hour-long series before trying the original telenovela route.

Some buyers are bullish. “It’s a very good idea to try because the Hispanic market is growing so much and this is a format that does well in that marketplace,” says Shari Anne Brill, VP/director of programming at Carat USA, “There’s a lot of Latino aspects that have crossed over into the general market, so why not try this?” Producers think they can get second- and third-generation Hispanics to tune into the English-language novelas, and there’s a good chance Anglos will tune in, too.

General managers at the Fox TV stations will have the option to run the novelas in any time slot they see fit, but Twentieth is aiming to clear the stories in any and all slots, including prime time.

Other stations are cautiously optimistic, maybe because the new format is so new. Still, some wonder.

“Telenovelas do awesome numbers on Univision and Telemundo, but oftentimes, those viewers only have two over-the-air stations to choose from,” says Dan Stein, VP of programming for Clear Channel Television. “I don’t know that you can translate that into a 500-channel universe that the English-speaking viewers have.”

But Caroline Chang, program manager at Cox stations KTVU and KICU in San Francisco concludes, “It’s a huge leap of faith. I don’t know if they are going to work, but we’re willing to take a chance.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.