Latin American auds are lapping up repeats and remakes of hit novelas

Rehashing old programs seems to be the newest trend in Latin American TV.

Mexico’s Televisa and TV Azteca have spring lineups filled with refried versions of local and international telenovelas.

In Brazil, second-tier nets remake Mexican soaps and old local ones for lack of access to top writers and resources.

In contrast, Argentina is on a creative high, driven by the need for stronger international sales.

So what is fueling this look back? Is it a cheaper option, or have scribes simply run out of ideas?

Spurred by the ratings success of “Cuna de Lobos,” a 1986 novela that Mexico’s market leader Televisa trotted out again early last year, both Televisa and second-ranked TV Azteca have begun leaning heavily on remakes.

This risk-averse strategy has proved lucrative in ratings and international sales. Televisa saw an 8% spike in foreign licensing sales from 414.6 million pesos ($36.9 million) to $39.8 million between the third quarters of 2003 and 2004.

“You take something that was tested and proved and after 20 or 25 years you bring it up to date because there’s a whole generation that hasn’t seen the story,” says writer Liliana Abud, who is penning “La madrasta” for Televisa. “That’s why they do remakes.”

Successful novelas of more recent vintage are rebroadcast one or two seasons after their run has ended in Mexico, yielding high ratings. Televisa got a second helpingfor its money by airing “Amor real” in 2003 and again in 2004.

TV Azteca looked outside Mexico for Latino soap ideas.

Its popular “Las Juanas” is a remake of the 1997 Colombian novela by the same name. Azteca’s best-performing novela, “Los Sanchez,” is a Mexican version of Argentine hit comic novela “Los Roldan.”

Last fall, Televisa’s remake of 1970 novela “Rubi” was the season’s highest-rated telenovela, in third place overall behind a pair of variety/comedy shows.

However, there are caveats.

“It’s not that it’s easier. It could be that a telenovela has had a lot of popularity the first time, but a second adaptation doesn’t guarantee success,” says Fides Velasco, producer of “Las Juanas” at TV Azteca. “The public demands more, since they already know what’s going to happen, and so it requires a different level of acting and production.”

In Brazil, leading net TV Globo gradually strengthened its hold on writers. When it became evident it was impossible to compete with Globo’s telenovela production machine in the second half of the 1990s, the smaller nets SBT, TV Record and Bandeirantes sought alternatives.

SBT aired dubbed Televisa telenovelas, Record focused on talk and variety shows, and Bandeirantes focused on sports and news. But it was clear that viewers wanted telenovelas and the smaller webs were forced to follow the trend.

In 2000, No. 2 net SBT inked an eight-year telenovela co-production pact to remake Televisa content. The first fruits of this, “A picara sonhadora,” aired in 2001. The companies are on their eighth co-production, “Esmeralda.”

SBT’s retreads usually rank second in the ratings, well behind Globo, but ahead of TV Record.

And originality is not the definition of success. Last year No. 3 net TV Record’s original novela “Metamorphosis,” produced by local indie Casablanca, was an audience failure.

But its remake of Globo’s 1970s hit “The Slave Isaura” is doing well. Record claims it is not a remake but a new telenovela based on Bernardo Guimaraes’ 19th century novel.

New or not, auds like it. “The Slave Isaura” ranks second in the 7 p.m.-8 p.m. slot.

Record will follow “Isaura” with “Senhora” in March — another remake of a 1970s Globo telenovela. Again, Record claims it is not a remake but a new telenovela based on the same 19th century classic by Jose de Alencar that the Globo skein was derived from. Herval Rossano, who directed both novelas in the 1970s, directed both Record novelas.

No. 4 net TV Bandeirantes will co-produce “Floribella” with RGB Entertainment, to air in March. The first Bandeirantes telenovela since 1999, “Floribella” is a remake of Artear Argentina’s hit “Floricienta.”

“We learned about the astonishing success of ‘Floricienta’ and decided to remake it in Brazil,” says the web’s spokeswoman. “We are working with RGB that has the know-how on telenovela production. From the cost point of view, it would not be wise to build a production center here.”

“Floribella” costs around $35,000 an episode — comparable with Globo’s original novelas that cost around $37,000 to $44,000.

But even Globo is not above using a retread now and then. It aired a remake of its 1979 telenovela “Cabocla” last year.

It does this partly because the net’s writers can’t come up with something better, or because there is some part of the plot that becomes current again.

Argentina’s TV industry was forced to slash imports and get creative due to a plunge in ad coin and 65% slump in the local currency that drained broadcasters’ programming budgets four years ago.

They turned to local production companies for everything from dramas to gamers and novelas.

These shingles — Cuatro Cabezas, Ideas del Sur Prods., Pol-ka Prods. and others — had to export their projects to make up the costs that could not be recouped by home sales alone.

International sales in 2004 doubled from the 18,500 hours of content sold in 2002, according to market estimates

New telenovelas are expected to continue to do well. Central Park Prods.’ classic love-triangle soap “Jesus, el heredero” (Jesus, the Heir) while lower rated last year (30% audience share vs. 70% for “Roldans”) has racked up good sales abroad.

Leading Argentine net Telefe, however, is doing some retreads in hope of repeating the success of last year’s “La ninera,” a local version of U.S. sitcom “The Nanny.” It also is prepping local adaptations of “Married … With Children” and “Who’s the Boss?”

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

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