Nets taking radical soap approach

English-language primetime telenovelas could be on the air as soon as next summer if execs at ABC and CBS get their way.

Both nets are pushing forward with plans to bring the popular sudser format to the States, although they’re taking slightly different paths to the same goal.

In what would be a radical departure for one of the Big Six, Eye entertainment chief Nina Tassler and Alphabet programming chief Steve McPherson are hoping to air a close-ended hourlong scripted sudser at least twice a week — or perhaps even five nights a week — over two or three months next summer.

If the plans work out, it would mark the first time a major broadcast network has mounted a telenovela-style skein, as well as a significant step forward in the nets’ stated goal of increasing original scripted programming in the off season.

McPherson said Alphabet alternative guru Andrea Wong and daytime chief Brian Frons have already collected 45 telenovela bibles as well as scripts on behalf of the network. ABC is mostly concentrating on picking up already produced formats, and McPherson said the goal would be to find a format that could air up to five nights a week.

Meanwhile, CBS, under the direction of Tassler and daytime chief Barbara Bloom, is developing five supercharged sudser scripts with the goal of bowing one project in June or July — perhaps in conjunction with the net’s long-running unscripted soap, “Big Brother.” Writers will turn in a first script as well as a series format within the next few weeks.

A mix of formats from a variety of different scribes is under consideration, including projects from Jackie Collins, Jonathan Prince and Rama Stagner (“American Dreams”); producer Denise Di Novi and former “Knots Landing” scribes Jim and Diane Stanley'; and “Guiding Light” head writer David Kreizman.

The telenovela push is said to be a passion project for Tassler, who has been looking to expand the Eye’s programming style now that the net is in first place. Tassler’s grandmother, who hailed from Puerto Rico, regularly watched the Spanish-language sudsers when Tassler was growing up.

McPherson said the success of serialized dramas such as ABC’s “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” has proven viewers are interested in event sudsers.

“There’s an audience that’s excited to watch something like this, something with a beginning, middle and an end,” he said. “It’s something we want to find a home for on ABC.”

Alphabet has been developing telenovelas for some time, going back to the days when McPherson ran Touchstone Television.

Net also recently picked up the rights to one of the most successful telenovelas of recent years, “Betty La Fea,” which had been at NBC. As of now, however, that project — from Ben Silverman’s Reveille — is being developed as a traditional once-a-week hour.

McPherson said ABC’s telenovela formats will stick to the basics. “It’s about great melodrama — love affairs, betrayal,” he said.

Production costs will have to be lowered to make sense for primetime. That doesn’t mean cheap, however.

“You have to stylistically embrace the constraints and make it something that still looks appropriate for primetime,” he said.

Over at CBS, insiders familiar with the net’s plan said plots will be femme-focused, including a love story at the core and elements of wish fulfillment.

As for suppliers, three projects hail from Eye sister studio Paramount Network Television. Net is also in talks with indie studios Sony Pictures Television and Fremantle North America on potential projects.

Sony has produced more than 500 hours of telenovela programming internationally in recent years, while Fremantle execs have publicly declared their intent to bring the format to the U.S. market.

As at ABC, production costs for the Eye telenovelas will be markedly lower than for typical primetime fare, though CBS isn’t saying exactly how much lower.

Tassler is nevertheless said to be pushing for high-quality production values, with both interior and exterior shooting. Key will be making the projects cost-effective, an insider said.

That may mean including elements of product integration or working out special deals with advertisers. Prince has been a pioneer in such deals and has an overall pact with product integration specialist Madison Road.

CBS and ABC have some other competition in the telenovela marketplace.

Earlier this week, Twentieth Television said it would bring the format into the syndie marketplace sometime next year under the “Desire” banner (Daily Variety, Dec. 14). It seems unlikely that project will launch before the summer.

And MTV actually got to market first with latenight sudser “Undressed,” which ran five nights a week for more than 200 episodes from 1999 until 2002.

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