Telenovelas of all varieties, whether fluffy Mexican tales of teen romance or steamy Brazilian sagas of betrayal, have long been a cash cow for Latin America’s major broadcasters. As well as topping the ratings at home, the short-run soaps – most show between 80 and 160 episodes – have proved reliable export fare for decades.
But recent intensifying of competition, with a second tier of South American broadcasters entering the export business, is pushing Latino companies to seek new lands to conquer. And since Western Europe is starting to waver as a reliable income source, distributors are now looking east.
“In Europe all Latin American producers are losing market,” says Jorge Adib, sales chief at Brazil’s Globo network, one of Latin America’s Big Four exporters.
“Italy is starting to produce its own novelas, including co-productions with Argentina, as is Spain,” Adib adds. “But the Asian market is really starting up.”
Cesar Diaz, sales VP for Venevision Intl., agrees. “The general consensus is that Asia is a booming part of the globe where everything is supposed to explode in the next five years.”
In the past 18 months, Venevision has experienced 150% growth in exports to non-Latin markets, says Diaz. Though Asia accounts for just 5% of his sales, Diaz expects that figure to climb.
The hot new market is China, which boasts nearly 90 million TV homes. Mexico’s Televisa, whose distributor, Protele, is the most prolific soap exporter, recently scaled the Chinese wall, selling its first novela there last fall.
To date, Protele has sold six soaps – including hot new “Corazon Salvaje” (Wild Heart) and perennial fave “Los Ricos Tambien Lloran” (The Rich Also Cry) – to a number of regional Chinese broadcasters. The distrib has also recently entered Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand, and intends to target Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore this year.
Thanks in part to Asian inroads and Indonesia’s being a major buyer, Protele exports almost doubled between 1993 and 1994. Now that 1995 looks bleak on the home front – following the peso devaluation – the Mexican company will likely step up its efforts to gain foreign currency through sales.
Coral Pictures, sales division of Venevision’s domestic arch rival, Radio Caracas TV, now finds that Asia accounts for 15% of its revenue, says VP German Perez Nahim.
“I won’t be surprised if that number goes up to 25% of total revenues in less than five years,” says Perez. The privatization of Asian webs is a major factor, he says, adding, “Two years ago there was no market in Asia.”
Perez finds that Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea are his biggest new clients, although the Arab countries are also eager to eyeball the passions of the Latins.
The flurry of Asian expansion is partly prompted by the entry of fresh competitors in the Latino and European markets. Last year Artear, Argentina’s No.1 web, set up a distribution arm. Business was modest at under $3 million, but Artear is confident sales will leap in 1995.
Rival web Telefe has been serious about exports a little longer. Though it had just four novelas to market, Telefe last year managed to sell 3,000 hours, chiefly within Latin America and to Spain and Italy.
Colombian programmers, who’ve been in the export business for a while, are also gaining ground. RCN’s “Cafe con Aroma de Mujer,” notable for mixing songs from Mexico and the Caribbean into its plot, is the latest sensation, heating up the ratings in Spain, the U.S. and throughout Latin America.
Rising costs – especially in Brazil and Argentina – are also behind the drive for new buyers. Globo, which produces Latin America’s most expensive soaps (they feature more location work than most Spanish-language fare), has seen per-episode costs climb from $35,000 in 1989 to more than $100,000 today, says Adib.