Novelas feed off their reality rivals

'Academia,' 'Celebrity' garner big ratings

HOLLYWOOD – Latin America has not escaped reality TV despite its long-standing affair with the telenovela. The onslaught of “Big Brother” and its kin over the past two to three years has made an indelible impact on sudsers in the region.

Since last year, Argentina’s leading broadcaster Telefe has skedded edgier shows with deeper themes, harder language, more sexual content and quicker tempos to woo auds.

“Reality programs showed us that we had to go a step further or get left behind,” says Sebastian Ortega, artistic director of comedy telenovela hit “Los Roldans,” a cross between the rags-to-riches family of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the irreverent “The Simpsons.”

While the telenovela format with its 100-plus episodes continues to rule broadcast programming, reality shows are at the vanguard in creativity — and their success is shaping telenovelas.

Mexico’s Televisa and its production partner Endemol have milked the “Big Brother” format for more than two years and are in the show’s sixth season at present. The last three versions have used the “VIP” format, in which celebrities are the stars of the show — and many are current and former Televisa novela luminaries.

No. 2 net TV Azteca hit pay dirt with “La Academia,” a kind of “American Idol” format. Its shallower pockets mean it takes the opposite approach to Televisa: TV Azteca casts the winners of reality skeins in its novelas.

This has allowed Azteca to create stars on the cheap. They capitalize on the recognition built up over the course of the reality show and avoid paying star-level contracts. Indeed, the prize for the winners of a reality show that Azteca ran last fall was a contract to star in a telenovela.

Yahir, the runner-up in the first season of “La Academia,” has gone on to appear in several Azteca novelas and currently stars in “Sonaras,” one of the net’s most popular skeins.

While telenovelas in Argentina have notched up the erotic content to grab more auds — “Resistire” (Forever Julia) grabbed a whopping 70% audience share for its finale — Brazil, already renowned for the sizzling content of its soaps, has been exploring new reality-based telenovela formats.

Market leader Globo’s “Celebrity” features big-name recording artists including Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, Canada’s Alanis Morissette and the U.K.’s Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. Local and international stars perform and interact with the lead character, a music producer. The heady mix of reality and fiction has drawn an audience share as high as 45% in the key city of Sao Paolo alone.

Since the performances are shot during regular concerts in Brazil, Globo has not had to cough up significant additional fees to either international or local artists.

Telenovela producers in Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and Peru are experiencing similar challenges.

“The problem in making these too local in their content is that they don’t travel as well — the biggest global seller remains the telenovela rosa, i.e. romantic soaps,” says producer Juan Andres Rodriguez of Miami-based international production/sales arm Venevision Intl.

Venevision Intl. has taken reality one step further by making the first interactive telenovela, “Rebeca” where viewers choose the ending by calling or going online. Central America, Puerto Rico, Spain and countries as far afield as Romania, Poland and Turkey have bought the skein.

Innovation aside, it’s the storyline that has driven sales: a woman is torn between two lovers — and they happen to be father and son.

Ken Bensinger in Mexico, Charles Newbery in Argentina and Marcelo Cajueiro in Brazil contributed to this report.

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