Each 'Fashion' episode costs just $200,000

SAN DIEGO — It’s midday and the portable air conditioners pumping cool air into MyNetworkTV’s soundstages for a new show called “Fashion House” are no match for San Diego’s sweltering heat.

On a set built to look like a hip urban loft, actor Mike Begovich holds a gun in his trembling hand while Donna Feldman, clad in red lingerie, tells him that she — horrors! — is carrying his unborn child.

“This is another one of your crazy little lies,” says Begovich.

“I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid,” says Feldman. “I swear I’m telling you the truth!”

Yes, this is over-the-top entertainment. It’s also cheap, and the first test of a new production model built around the telenovela form that has long been a mainstay of Latin American television.

Each episode of this show costs just $200,000, a fraction of the typical $3 million per episode of network drama. In a matter of weeks, Fox’s MyNetworkTV is producing 65 segs — a number it would take a normal weekly drama three years to produce.

And while critics already are snickering — TV Guide’s Matt Roush called an early episode “something worse than nothing” — producer Twentieth Television is gambling that the results will be novel enough to be review-proof. Company is producing two novelas per quarter, of 65 hours each, that run for 13 weeks.

“There are catfights, guns, lots of seduction, crying, hospitals … really everything,” says Feldman, 24, describing the script of “Fashion House,” which starts Sept. 5 on MyNetworkTV-affiliated stations across the country.

Long before the idea of a new broadcast network had crossed the mind of Fox execs, “Fashion House” and another telenovela called “Desire” were being readied as a U.S. experiment in English-language telenovelas for the syndie market. But with the collapse of the WB and UPN into one network — the CW — Fox upped the ante and offered broadcast affiliates around the country a sweet deal to take a gamble on a new network that was going all-novela in primetime.

“Initially, we were going to do three (novelas) but when MyNetworkTV came into existence we decided to do eight a year,” says Twentieth TV production president Paul Buccieri. “It’s unprecedented.”

Twentieth has assembled one of the largest TV productions in the state, with hundreds of principal actors, thousands of extras and nine production crews working simultaneously to crank out the first three of eight planned telenovelas this year. “Desire,” a sweeping tale of brothers in an amorous triangle pursued by the mob, employed more than 30 series regulars, 300 day players and 2,000 extras.

On the lot at Stu Siegel Prods., young actors line up to fill out paperwork and the production is taking up every available stage, including one used by “Veronica Mars” during that drama’s hiatus.

Back in New York, Fox’s network sales team are trying to round up $50 million in advertising for the coming year. It’s a pittance compared to the hundreds of millions even the CW can expect, but MyNetwork has been a tough sell for advertisers leery of the concept. Can Americans adapt to the sort of every-night-viewing that make telenovelas billion-dollar franchises around the world?

“Outside of latenight, people are not in the habit of turning on the same channel five nights a week; it’s a key behavioral change,” says Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at media agency Mindshare, a unit of global ad giant WPP.

“We don’t know what kind of appetite there is for an English-language telenovela,” says Shari Anne Brill, director of programming at Carat Americas, expressing the agencies’ wait-and-see attitude. “We are looking at them more as a syndication service; the way we see the TV environment is as a five-network environment not a six.”

Both say the key to MyNetworkTV’s prospects is to gain a huge early sampling for the skeins and convey the idea that these are nightly, not weekly, shows. It’s a difficult task for MyNetworkTV and its affiliates, which are launching a new network brand as well.

Twentieth has already optioned 1,000 hours of stories that have played well around the world.

The first three telenovelas of its new productions all had strong female lead characters, so Twentieth went out and signed some big stars of the past who, it turned out, were available, like Bo Derek, Morgan Fairchild and Tatum O’Neal. Surrounding them is a cast of the mostly, young, beautiful and unknown.

Now that the finished pilot of “Desire” and a trailer for “Fashion House” are circulating, critics like Roush have started to weigh in. But Buccieri defends the shows’ quality.

“People in the industry had an expectation that our production value would be sub-par, but as you can see this is not the case,” Buccieri says. As for the storylines, he says, the way to look at them as the TV version of a trashy beach novel.

“These shows are designed to be guilty pleasures,” he says, “and that’s what they are.”

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