English-language versions of Spanish 'telenovelas' in the works
The Wall Street Journal
Latin American soaps popular, sex-drenched
By Brooks Barnes Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/110575
Imagine all the deceit, blackmail, murders and sex of the first two seasons of "Desperate Housewives" crammed into 13 steamy weeks.
That's the image three big TV companies are conjuring as they look to the model of Spanish-language soap operas in the search for a profitable new genre. ABC, CBS and Twentieth Television are developing English-language versions of "tele-novelas," the over-the-top, sex-drenched soap operas that have long been the hallmark of Spanish-language networks abroad and have commanded growing audiences in the United States.
The networks hope the racy format will help win younger audiences, boost ratings and persuade viewers to watch the shows when they air, rather than record them and fast-forward through commercials. Torrid scenes and fast-paced plots should generate so much water-cooler buzz that viewers won't want to be left behind, executives say.
It's a new genre for the big networks: While story lines on American soaps drag on for years, even decades, Spanish soaps deliver a concentrated dose of immediate gratification. Telenovelas typically air several times a week in prime time and wrap up everything after about 13 weeks.
Some of the series in development are borrowed from actual Latin American telenovelas, although most will feature Americanized characters and communities. ABC is adapting the Colombian soap "Betty La Fea" (or "Ugly Betty"), about an unattractive but efficient secretary at a ruthless fashion magazine. ABC has yet to schedule the series.
Twentieth Television is reworking various telenovelas, including "Table for Three," a Colombian show about two brothers "embroiled in a battle of passion, betrayal, deceit, murder and love over the same woman," according to Twentieth's promotional materials.
Twentieth plans to sell packages of its shows to TV stations domestically and abroad. With 65 episodes each, the shows are designed to air five nights a week. The first will debut this fall, says Bob Cook, president of Twentieth. He has sold the first package to 26 Fox Television Network stations and is in discussions with other major station groups.
CBS, which is looking at five scripts, hopes to have one show ready for this summer. Traditionally a less competitive TV season, summer is good for testing new concepts. And sometimes they hit big: "Survivor," the megahit on CBS, premiered in the summer of 2000 and sparked a boom in unscripted TV.
The networks' interest in the format is also a nod to the exploding Hispanic population. According to the Census, 48 million Hispanics will live in the United States by 2010, a 37 percent increase from 2000.
Network executives also have noticed that the two dominant Spanish-language broadcasters in the United States — Univision and Telemundo — have won audiences of 3 million young adult viewers for their telenovelas. (By way of comparison, "CSI," one of TV's top-rated shows, gets audiences of about 4.4 million adults ages 18 to 34.) Univision's "Contra Viento Y Marea" ("Against All Odds" in English) ranked No. 1 in its 7 p.m. time slot among young adults, against all other shows, regardless of language, during the last week in December, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Meantime, there's more interest in soapy material in general. "Desperate Housewives" routinely ranks as the No. 1 or No. 2 program, while Disney's Soapnet, which airs reruns of 1980s hits such as "Dallas" along with daytime fare, is one of the fastest-growing cable networks.
Telenovelas are also cheap to produce, costing about $1 million an episode or less. At that level, telenovelas would be more in line with the costs of reality shows — and far less than a prime-time drama, which costs about $2 million an episode.