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‘Ugly Betty’ grows into swan around globe

Telenovela takes off in many territories

A Colombian ugly duckling has catapulted the telenovela genre out of its Latin American barrio and generated more clones than any other Latin sudser.

“Yo soy Betty la fea” bowed in Colombia on RCN in 2000. Just five years later, the original telenovela and localized versions of it have sold to more than 70 countries on three continents.

Now she’s poised to crack the toughest market in the world — the U.S.

ABC has ordered a pilot that thesp, Salma Hayek, a former telenovela actress herself, is exec producing with Ben Silverman of Reveille Prods.

America Ferrera has been cast in the lead role.

“It’s a telenovela with comedy, that’s why it works,” says Silverman who had been working on “Ugly Betty” for five years with Raul Mateu of William Morris, Miami. Pilot will shoot in New York in March with a budget at a par with other primetime skeins.

At the moment, it’s set to be a weekly hour instead of a standard telenovela Monday-Friday strip. “We’ll decide once the pilot is finished whether to make it a weekly or daily show,” Silverman says.

While the story arch will be similar, “Ugly Betty” will not follow specific storylines of the original. “We have the RCN team as our consultants and have invited them to the set,” he adds.

U.S. Spanish-language web Telemundo aired the show in September 2000, and it drove Telemundo’s ratings for 11 months, according to former chief Jim McNamara. Not to be outdone, numero uno rival Univision broadcast the skein the following year.

Univision will air the Mexican version that programming supplier Televisa bowed to stellar ratings Jan. 23 in Mexico. Televisa presented the series at NATPE, where it piqued buyers’ interest.

“Betty” was an unusual choice for its creator, Colombian scribe Fernando Gaitan.

“Women in Colombia were and still are obsessed about their appearance, and will go to extreme lengths to look good — even plastic surgery,” he points out. “We have a saying here: There are no ugly women, only poor women or women with poor husbands.”

Gaitan planted Betty in the glossy world of fashion, where her thick-rimmed glasses, dowdy outfits, braces and bangs would strike an even harsher contrast. She had one saving grace: her brains.

The show exploded across Colombia. It was the highest rated telenovela in the nation in 2000, with a peak viewership of 3.3 million and a 72% market share, 230% above broadcaster RCN’s slot average. Across the region where the original aired in nearly all territories, average ratings ranged from 41.5 in Venezuela to 58.9 in Ecuador.

“Its phenomenal success took me completely by surprise,” Gaitan says. “After all, it was experimental, and took a lot of risks.” Until 2001, he wrote five episodes a week for the Colombian version until its 169-episode run ended, with Betty transformed into a beauty, snagging her hunky boss and saving the fashion company from bankruptcy.

To see his creation resonate in Hindi, Russian and German, and hear of other upcoming versions, has surprised him even more. “It only goes to show that female vanity is universal,” he says.

Sales of the original and remake rights have made “Betty” RCN’s most profitable telenovela ever, according to RCN international sales chief Maria Lucia Hernandez. RCN refuses to reveal figures, but sources estimate RCN has earned at least $50 million to date from the soap. Royalties from current and upcoming remakes will fill its coffers for years to come.

Gaitan is supervising the Mexican version, retitled “La fea mas bella” (The Prettiest Ugly One).

“Foreign telenovelas are usually not accepted by the Mexicans, but the original ‘Betty la fea’ was a phenomenal exception, even though it was relegated to our second channel,” says Rosy Ocampo, producer of the Mexican “Betty.”

It was the success of  the “Betty” remakes in Germany and elsewhere that made Televisa take notice. Televisa opted to schedule the new “Betty” in the 4-5 p.m. slot on Canal 2, its flagship channel, in a bid to increase ratings in the flagging timeslot. The gamble worked, with the show averaging a 24.1 rating, nearly double the slot’s peak rating in the past. “Betty” even rated 2 points higher than Televisa’s primetime novela “Barrera de amor.”

The first foreign “Betty,” “Jassi jaise koi nahin” debuted September 2003 on Sony Entertainment Television (SET) in India where it quickly rose to the top. Thesp Mona Singh who plays the lead character Jasmeet Wahlia, started out as a struggling model and is now contemplating a Bollywood career. Tapping years of experience in remaking scripted fare for other countries, Sony Pictures Television Intl. (SPTI) seized the Indian and Russian remake rights of “Betty” in December 2002 and 2005, respectively.

The Russian clone on No. 3 net CTC has pulled average audience shares of 32 in the 6-54 demo since it bowed in September, according to CTC prexy-CEO Alexander Rodnyansky. CTC dominates Russian TV when “Betty” runs, weekdays from 8-9 p.m.

Ironically, CTC was reluctant at first. “They didn’t think it would work, because they thought it was too Latino,” says Steve Kent, SPTI’s senior exec VP of international production.

Talks dragged on for months. Sony had the great fortune to find Russian-speaking Colombians Luis Orjuela and Felipe Gamba to serve as creative consultants. Orjuela had studied film at Moscow U. and has directed some episodes, while Gamba, a scribe and film school grad, works closely with SPTI Russia veep James Kramer and a team of Russian writers to get the tone right.

Adapting it to Russian started with the title “Ne rodis krasivoi …” (Born Ugly), which forms the first part of popular Russian proverb, “Born not pretty, but lucky.”

Not unlike their Indian counterpart, Germany’s Alexandra Neldel and Russia’s Nelly Uvarova, who play Betty, have become national figures.

But in India at least, the charm seems to have worn off.

“Jassi” was not among SET’s top three shows by December’s end, and is slated to wrap this month when Jasmeet finally marries hero Armaan. At its peak, “Jassi” hit a 5.1/6, and now ranks below 2 in the Indian TAM ratings.

In Germany, FremantleMedia sister company Grundy had to tone down the humor, says FremantleMedia’s head of creative development for worldwide drama, Nick Malmholt. “Verliebt in Berlin” bowed in February 2005 and has exceeded the slot average by 100% for adults 14-49.

Meanwhile, Fremantle’s Blue Circle Prods. in Holland started shooting its version for John de Mol’s new Dutch web Talpa on Jan. 9. To help in its adaptation, FremantleMedia has one ace up its sleeve, Juana Uribe, producer of the original, who works for Invento, Fremantle’s joint venture in Colombia.

FremantleMedia is selling “Betty” remake rights to the rest of Europe. Given that broadcasters in many of these territories are keen to spawn their own “Bettys,” we may eventually see her clones all over the Continent.

The mind boggles.

Shilpa Bharatan Iyer in Mumbai contributed to this report.

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