In 1990, “Cristal,” the first-ever Latin American soap to air undubbed in Spain, made TV history, smashing 80% viewing shares and the nation’s siesta from its after-lunch slot to become the year’s top-rated program.

Since 1990, however, Latin American telenovelas – marathon series in which the hero and heroine fail to find happiness for up to 220 hourlong segs – have ceased to be a sociological phenomenon here. But they remain a staple of Spanish TV skeds.

The past 12 months have seen a major new telenovela sales alliance in Spain. Having run out his six-year contract with Venezuelan telenovela powerhouse Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), which he repped through his company Coral Europa, Juan-Julio Baena has moved his upmarket sales force over to Venezuela’s other telenovela production giant, Venevision, creating Vision Europa.

The entity has exclusive rep rights to Venevision product for Europe and the Arab World. The well-capitalized Baena also runs a blue-chip TV production operation, having produced the daily gameshow “Family Feud” for pubcaster TVE.

Having lost Baena, RCTV’s Miami-based Coral Pictures set up sales operation EuroCoral in Madrid, with Karina Bruno as head of marketing and sales.

Now airing in mornings and mid-afternoon, telenovelas still provide significant ratings in Spain. Coral’s “El Desprecio” (Scorn) went out this April on TVE’s first channel from 3:30-4: 30 p.m. to grab a top-rated 30.7% share.

“In such a competitive marketplace, any audience share of over 30% counts as a great success,” says Juan Baena, Vision Europa exec VP.

Prices paid by Spanish broadcasters can be $10,000-$15,000 an hour. Baena stresses, however, that much depends on the novelas’ quality and packaging.

Already established in Spain, Latin America, the U.S. and Canada, telenovelas’ growth potential lies abroad. Portugal, Italy (in primetime), Greece, Israel, Turkey, Poland, Russia and Romania all air the Latino suds. Vision Europa recently pulled off deals for Scandinavia and Germany.

Coral Pictures exec VP German Perez reports a recent breakthrough in Indonesia, where visiting “Kassandra” star Coraima Torres was mobbed by fans.

“With production costing not less than $40,000 an hour, a telenovela represents a large investment,” says Baena. Given that, Venevision and Coral are likely to increasingly co-produce theirs.

Telenovelas’ packaging potential is huge. Venevision turns out some five a year (650-1,000 hours of programming in all). Coral’s catalog has more than 11,000 hours of programming, 70% of it telenovelas.

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