World's most successful telenovela opens doors for Colombia

Spurred by the enormous worldwide success of “Ugly Betty,” Colombian telenovela production and sales have grown exponentially over the past decade.

RCN TV’s uplifting underdog tale entered Guinness World Records last year as the most successful telenovela in history. It has been dubbed into 25 languages, sold to more than 100 countries and spawned at least 17 local adaptations, including the U.S. version on ABC.

At least 30 telenovelas are now in production in Columbia, and the country’s output is catching up with that of its more seasoned counterparts, Brazil and Mexico. “Our first international hit was in the early ’90s with ‘Cafe con aroma de mujer’ (Coffee With the Scent of a Woman), but ‘Betty’s’ record success was truly unexpected,” says RCN TV content VP Fernando Gaitan, who wrote both telenovelas.

Lisette Osorio, international TV sales director of Caracol TV, which has seen a 48% increase in international sales in the past six months, says simply, ” ‘Ugly Betty’ opened doors for everyone.”

In addition to the broadcasting duopoly of RCN and Caracol, Fox-owned Telecolombia, Sony Pictures TV’s Teleset and NBCU’s Telemundo-owned RTI also have been producing their fair share of local telenovelas.

Colombian telenovelas add their own special twist to the genre. “Ugly Betty” is a comedy centered on a smart but unattractive girl. In another RCN telenovela, “La mirada de mujer,” the heroine is a 50-year-old woman. Caracol’s new telenovela “El secretario” follows the travails of a male secretary.

“I think we’ve been more innovative and experimental,” Gaitan says.

“We’re not afraid to try new ways to deliver a story,” agrees Osorio.

Colombia has also produced the “narco novela,” grittier and more realistic tales set in the underworld of drug cartels. Caracol’s “Sin tetas no hay paraiso” (Without Tits There Is No Paradise) paved the way for more of its type, led by “El cartel,” “Las munecas de la mafia” (Mafia Molls), “Rosario Tijeras” and “El capo.”

All have been top sellers, but in some territories local governments have either banned them or obliged nets to push them into later timeslots. Venezuela forced market leader Televen to pull “El capo” and “Rosario Tijeras” due to the novela’s portrayal of drug gang violence.

“Before President Hugo Chavez came into power, Venezuela used to be our biggest client, but it’s become more restrictive now,” says Osorio. Ecuador’s state-owned TC Television also dropped “Rosario Tijeras,” while Panamanian authorities saw to it that local broadcasters pushed “Tijeras” and other narco novelas to later hours.

RCN international sales chief Maria Lucia Hernandez expects brisk sales at Mipcom in Cannes this week for money-laundering telenovela “La mariposa” (The Butterfly) and “Tres milagros” (Three Miracles) — a fast-paced urban melodrama about three women in love with the same man — and its more traditional telenovela “Santisimas.”

Caracol’s slate includes a mix of gritty telenovelas, led by “La promesa” (The Promise) and “Infiltrados” (Infiltrated), as well as more esoteric ones such as “La bruja” (The Witch), and romantic fare, such as “Amar y temer” (Love and Fear), a co-production with Teleset.

Colombian broadcasters have also been making more of what they call series, but are really shorter telenovelas, with 30-50 episodes instead of the standard 120.

“After the success of some shorter telenovelas, we got our viewers used to them,” Gaitan says.

However, some habits are hard to break. These so-called series are still stripped daily. Even RCN’s local version of “Grey’s Anatomy” (A corazon abierto), co-produced with Disney’s Buena Vista Intl. TV, airs Monday through Friday.

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