Romance abroad

No longer Latin exclusive, telenovelas are global hits

LONDON — One upon a time, telenovelas, the ultimate small-screen lovelorn fantasies, were strictly the preserve of Latin America and Spanish-speaking markets, or deployed to flesh out cash-strapped Eastern Euro broadcaster skeds.

Not anymore.

From Moscow to Madagascar, South Korea to South Carolina, telenovelas are traveling the globe as a new wave of shows, produced and sold by the likes of FremantleMedia, Sony and Disney, are entering the market.

If producers and distribs get their way, this form of escapist fiction — that for years has been derided by TV critics for its unvarnished sentimentality — might soon became a staple of network schedules in the world’s toughest TV markets: the U.S. and U.K.

“Everyone likes romantic stories and romantic drama,” says Rainer Wemcken, managing director of Grundy UFA, which started making telenovelas a year ago, building on its expertise in the soap market. “Julia Roberts movies are successful everywhere and, for me, they are 90-minute telenovelas.

“There’s no reason why they won’t work in the U.S., Great Britain and France. We’re talking to broadcasters in Holland and I know our London colleagues have ambitions to produce for U.K. channels.”

If Wemcken’s optimism sounds overblown, it should be stressed that it was his company that broke the telenovela in Germany, a territory where tastes run toward fast-paced crime thrillers.

German-based Grundy UFA, the local production arm of Fremantle Media, has scored with “Bianca,” the tale of a young woman who reinvents herself after being imprisoned for a crime she did not commit, and “Verliebt in Berlin,” based on Colombian hit “Yo soy Betty la fea” (I Am Ugly Betty).

Aired on ZDF, “Bianca” doubled its afternoon slot’s share in the target 14-49 demo. “Betty la fea” produced similar success for Sat 1.

With two more Grundy telenovelas being rolled out on ZDF, plus another show for ARD, Wemcken’s hunch that the genre could make an impact in Germany has clearly paid off. But getting European broadcasters to overcome their initial prejudices required persistence.

“All the stations were a bit reluctant,” Wemcken admits. “Telenovelas require a lot of investment and the new soaps German broadcasters had tried out weren’t working. They thought the market was saturated.

“We said, ‘OK, maybe telenovelas have a better chance.’

But most important, the numbers add up and there are opportunities for cross-media promotion and revenue streams, plus the potential for handsome profits from merchandising, including magazines, books, CDs and DVDs.

Advertisers like them because audiences tend to build during the course of 230-250 episodes (in Latin America the genre has much shorter runs) and they’re popular with females.

From a broadcaster’s perspective, telenovelas have some of the advantages of buying or producing a soap opera (relatively low budgets due to economies of scale) without the disadvantage of being tied in for years or even decades.

“Telenovelas are not really cheaper than soaps, but on the other hand you have a marketing instrument,” explains Wemcken. “They’re more expensive than reality series and are harder to sell for that reason.

“Only a pubcaster like ZDF could afford to put on something like ‘Bianca’ in the afternoon. They are too expensive for private channels to run in the afternoon. The challenge is to develop telenovelas for the evening.”

Adds Nick Malholt, Fremantle Media’s senior development exec for worldwide drama, “Germany has woken up everyone to the potential of the telenovela. Good reality shows are turning out to be no less expensive than drama and almost as scripted. Telenovelas aren’t a low-cost option and have all the production values of high-quality primetime drama.”

Sony TV is moving into the telenovela market, selling shows to Spain, Russia and China.

One of its most successful properties is “Poor Anastasia,” a period piece set against the backdrop of 19th-century czarist Russia and, at 127 episodes, is the first long-running series to air in Russia.

“Poor Anastasia” had a 30 share in Russia and was the first to be sold outside of Russia to territories as far afield as China, Spain and Jordan.

Says Steve Kent, senior exec VP at Sony Pictures Television Intl.: “We are in conversation with Eastern and Western European territories to co-produce telenovelas and other programs.”

(Anna Marie de la Fuente contributed to this report.)

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