Success due to return to the traditional, critic Cueva sez

MEXICO CITY — If there is a secret to producing a hit telenovela, Televisa’s Salvador Mejia must know it.

Eight of the Spanish-lingo broadcasting giant’s top 12 international sellers are his.

His latest offering, “La madrasta” (The Stepmother), about an innocent woman framed for her husband’s murder, has run in 60 countries, and Televisa is in talks to sell it in Spain.

Its final episodes won higher ratings in its timeslot in Los Angeles and Chicago than shows on the English-lingo nets.

“La Madrastra was a perfect telenovela,” says Alvaro Cueva, Mexico’s preeminent TV critic, who writes for a selection of periodicals including national daily Milenio “Mejia has a great notion of what kind of stories will play well both in Mexico and abroad.”

Cueva puts Mejia’s success down to his return to traditional telenovelas after a period when Mexico experimented with more political and edgy themes.

The Mexican telenovela is based on an extensive body of Latin American melodrama. Thirty-year-old scripts by famed Cuban authors are recycled into today’s hits. Indeed, the original story on which “La madrasta” is based was written by Arturo Moya Grau, and first aired in Chile 24 years ago.

Now Mexico is the telenovela production center of the world, and Televisa produces more than 1,300 hours of telenovelas every year.

“We have 50 years of know-how,” Mejia says.

Mejia, 45, joined Televisa in 1982 as a production assistant, fresh out of college, where he studied film. He learned his craft on 23 telenovelas working with pioneer Valentin Pimstein before working his way up to associate producer.

In 1995, Mejia become Televisa’s director of literary content, in charge of its massive library of scripts. He chooses each season’s lineup.

Mejia’s first solo project came in 1997, with “Esmerelda,” which starred pop sensation Thalia and was a hit around the world.

While some producers film more than half of their telenovelas before the first episode hits the air, Mejia works only three or four days ahead of broadcasts. This allows him to use fan feedback to tailor the outcome of the stories, giving some characters greater prominence and snuffing others out.

“Sometimes the adrenaline cuts your creative options and you have to be very practical,” says Jorge Edgar Ramirez, who has worked as director on six Mejia projects. “But it pushes us forward; it is something magical — sometimes marvelous scenes come out.”

On location at a daily shoot, it’s easy to believe the boasts of Mejia’s publicist that Televisa’s daily production budget for all of its telenovelas can reach $1.5 million — the average cost of a Mexican film.

One sunny Mexico City morning, Mejia has taken over a former hacienda, now in the middle of a northern industrial suburb, with hundreds of actors, crew and a fleet of trucks to shoot a scene for his current hit “La esposa virgin” (The Virgin Wife).

Down south, Televisa crews are putting the finishing touches on a 19th century town center that will be the centerpiece of “Amor real” producer Carla Estrada’s next period telenovela.

Meanwhile four other telenovelas are also being shot.

But the expense is worth it. Mejia claimed that 60% of Televisa’s domestic broadcasting revenue comes from the telenovela factory.

Televisa’s programming exports reached nearly $175 million in 2004, driven by the telenovela — $105 million came from U.S. net Univision, as well as nets Telefutura and Televisa’s Galavision.

Despite years churning out the format, Mejia has no intention of a career change just yet.

“I’m committed to the common people. To go to the movies with four kids and two adults is a lot of money for what Mexican’s earn,” he said. “Telenovelas provide inspirational characters for the people to identify with.”

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