Beyond telenovelas

Creative business models, stable economies and the global embrace of telenovelas have buoyed Latin American markets to unprecedented success over the past several years. The big question is, will the region be able to build on its momentum?

“So far, the economies are holding up,” says Buena Vista Intl. Television senior VP Fernando Barbosa, “and the region is stable. You never know because Latin America is like a slingshot, up and down, volatile. But so far, so good.”

Jose Escalante, general manager of RCTV Intl. (formerly known as Coral Intl.), says Latin American countries are learning to stretch their dinero by pooling resources.

“It is cheaper to buy formats for multiple countries, so what we have seen is several countries uniting and producing shows together,” Escalante says, “Then instead of having to set up a studio in each country, they use the same studio. For example, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru all shot versions of the ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ format using the same set, but each show stars a local host and local contestants.”

The same model is being used for dramas, Escalante adds.

“Several countries are using the same location to shoot local versions of ‘Lost,’ each using different casts. What it does is lower the cost for them so instead of buying the finished U.S. product, they buy the format to produce locally for their own countries.”

Despite the appetite for local programming, U.S. drama has seen a resurgence in Latin America.

“The trend has been to reversion American series into local productions,” Barbosa says. “But we are also selling the American version to the same broadcasters and dubbing it to reiterate the coming season. We’re doing that in every single territory.

“For example,” he says, “in Argentina we launched the local version of ‘Desperate Housewives,’ and it was a great success. We’re now starting to shoot the second season, so during that time, the U.S. dubbed version will be broadcast to reiterate the story to the audience. We are not the only company doing it.”

Part of the appeal of local programming is marketing, points out MarVista Entertainment CEO Fernando Szew, who hails from Argentina.

“Locally produced shows mean you have locally produced talent that is more accessible,” Szew says. “They can go on talkshows and do radio interviews and otherwise interact with the audience, which in turn then begins to identify with them.”

While Szew agrees that U.S.-scripted dramas are gaining a foothold in Latin American TV schedules, “it’s still more in the cable landscape, because the free TV marketplace is still primarily produced locally and because telenovelas still dominate the schedules.”

Escalante says most sales between Latin American countries continue to involve telenovelas and made-for-TV movies: “If you look at each one of the television networks for each of the countries in Latin America, each one airs three to six Latin dramas.”

The executives agree that the breakthrough of telenovelas in the U.S. market was an important turning point, although what it means remains unclear.

“It is interesting to see the results by different cities,” Escalante muses. “In Florida, they are doing really, really well, especially in the Miami area. And I would not have expected the telenovelas to be doing as well in New York as they are. The East Coast overall is doing really well.

“But it is disappointing they are not doing as well in Los Angeles. But there, the Hispanic population is very Mexican, which does not speak English as a first language as much as the Hispanic population does on the East Coast.”

Then there is the issue of whether Fox’s MyNetworkTV dramas are true telenovelas, or if the U.S. adaptations are a different dramatic animal.

“I tend to see more American daytime drama in them than the true essence of telenovelas,” Escalante says. “On the other hand, MyNetworkTV has just started doing telenovelas, and when you start with a new product it makes things difficult. I think if they keep on trying, they are going to be successful. Because what I also see is that my Hispanic colleagues are watching these telenovelas in English, which is very important.”

Buena Vista’s Barbosa agrees. “One of the big stories this year, obviously, was finally getting a successful script from Latin America exported to the U.S. — which was ‘Betty la fea’ (ABC’s “Ugly Betty”). Even so, they took a telenovela script and adapted to a U.S. genre — the sitcom — as opposed to keeping the telenovela format. Having said that, ‘Ugly Betty’ was a great triumph for Latin America. It will take a little time for U.S. producers to capture the essence of the genre, but it will happen, little by little.”

At the same time, even the venerable telenovela evolves, points out Escalante.

“Instead of producing the old Cinderella type of story, now we are producing dramas that have elements of ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘Dynasty.’ They are still classical love stories, but audiences all over the world are demanding more contemporary dramas. So production companies are trying to accommodate that.”

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