U.S. dramas inspire tyro showrunners

MADRID — A Wednesday afternoon in Madrid’s dog days of August. At a TV studio, 10 minutes west of the Spanish capital city, award-winning actor Carlos Hipolito, playing middle-aged Police Inspector Valle, talks on the phone, grave-faced, with his superior. From a studio corner, producer Ramon Campos looks on attentively.

He should. The shoot’s “Guante blanco,” a police drama. It’s one of pubcaster TVE’s biggest new-season bets, and part of a new wave of TV that’s being spearheaded by creative young showrunners.

“A new generation, very much influenced by the U.S. drama boom, has begun to emerge in Spanish TV production companies. Stateside, new talent brought a different fiction. I hope the same can happen here,” Campos says.

There’s a lot riding on it for Campos. As showrunner on the prizewinning TV family drama “Desaparecida,” a “Twin Peaks”-style thriller, Campos established his credibility, and “Guante” is the first production, and a sizable one at that, for his new shingle, Bambu Prods.

“‘Guante’s'” story is classic enough, though not without contempo noirish acerbity: A man who has been a widower for a year flees to Madrid with his sons to try to find a new reason to live. He finally finds it pursuing a thief. But, like “Desaparecida,” “Guante” has an unquestionable cinematographic flavor, including multisource lighting and a mix of thriller — not much exploited in Spain — and social realism.

“Desaparecida” was groundbreaking for Spanish fiction: Young Spanish TV creatives ran the show, and TVE management gave them a loose leash.

Both “Desaparecida” and “Guante” were nurtured by TVE fiction head David Martinez, who, like Campos, is in his early 30s. The two skeins’ lists of directors include Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo, whose “The Night of the Sunflowers” is reckoned to be one of Spain’s best recent feature film debuts.

TVE parent CRTVE is taking a step forward by building two fiction lines: adult-skewed, quality products for commercial web La 1, such as “Desaparecida,” and younger-demo experimental fiction at cultural web La 2, Martinez says.

New La 2 projects include filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia’s “Pluton BRB Nero,” a pioneering — for Spain — sci-fi sitcom that promises an abundant dose of surrealism, in line with his films.

“Guante” will be aired on La 1 during the new season’s primetime, but the most ambitious new TV drama in terms of production costs is another unusual genre skein: the 17th-century-set adventure series “Aguila Roja,” produced by Globomedia, Spain’s top fiction factory, for La 1 primetime.

“As part of our public service remit, we have to be bolder in our fiction projects,” Martinez says.

In Spain, there are other reasons to explore new fiction horizons.

One is the audience: More than 70% of new Spanish series sizably underperformed channel averages last season. Top hits were golden oldies: Telecinco’s “Aida” and “Hospital Central,” which triumphantly closed their fifth and 15th seasons, respectively, in June and July. Telecinco’s remake of Colombian telenovela “Sin tetas no hay paraiso” (a strong 23.3% share) and Antena 3’s “Fisica o Quimica,” a youth dramedy that pushed the envelope with sex and drugs, produced by Ida y Vuelta (18.4% share, 1.9 points above channel average) were rookie exceptions.

“Spanish fiction needs to constantly search for alternative formulas, different visions of life that energize U.S. dramas,” says Eduardo Garcia Matilla, prexy of audience research company Corp. Multimedia.

Over 2007-08, local dramas did gain ground, rising from 6.8% to 8.4% of the combined channels’ share. But that’s mainly due to a plunge in other offerings, such as talkshows, says Garcia Matilla.

And Spanish fiction faces other challenges that curb innovation. Compared with other TV genres, production of local TV dramas is expensive — a cheap episode costs E500,000 ($735,000), although when fiction hits, channels win faithful audiences. Unlike the U.S., Spain doesn’t have strong HBO-style pay TV operators backing high-profile TV fiction projects.

And Spain’s current TV panorama is hardly the most encouraging. Its terrestrial TV ad investment dropped 4.1% in the first half of the year. And fragmentation is building, with analog TV reaching only a 62.7% audience share in July vs. 74.4% one year ago.

“We’ll have to make cheaper formats, targeting more specific demos,” argues Goyo Quintana, general manager at Ida y Vuelta, who’s adapting BBC skein “Life on Mars” for Antena 3.

Spanish productions could see increasing returns from abroad. “We designed ‘Aguila Roja’ thinking that it also must work for other markets,” says Daniel Ecija, Globomedia’s co-founder and creative director.

A pioneer in Spanish TV exports — licensing series to 30-plus countries — Globomedia is now talking with Fox TV Studios about the co-production of several TV dramas. It’s also near to closing with ShineReveille a first-option deal to adapt for North America Antena 3’s cop comedy “Los hombres de Paco.”

Fox TV Studios has also optioned U.S. format rights on social comedy “El sindrome de Ulises,” produced for A3 by publishing company Zeta Group’s FicciON TV. “Like the NBA, American TV execs are discovering that Spaniards know how to do things right,” Quintana argues.

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