Telemundo Puts New Twist on Telenovela

Experiment with drug lord drama 'El Senor' marks effort to build series franchise

Telemundo is experimenting with the telenovela format by greenlighting something rarely, if ever, seen with the nightly sudsers that are a staple of Spanish-language TV: a second season.

For the first time in its history, the NBCUniversal-owned broadcast net has begun production of a second season of a telenovela, the 1990s-set crime drama “El Senor de los Cielos” (Lord of the Skies).

The Mexico City-based production was designed to be different from the get-go. Instead of the usual 120-plus episodes, “El Senor’s” initial run was 74 episodes. And instead of the standard story arc with a clear beginning, middle and end, “El Senor” closed its 17-week run in early August with plenty of unresolved elements to pique auds’ interest in a second season.

“What it brings to the table for us is more or less what happens in general-market television,” said Joshua Mintz, Telemundo’s exec VP scripted programming and g.m. of Telemundo Studios. “You have a very successful platform on which to build more and more episodes. Our viewers are more than eager to see what happens with characters that they are already in love with.”

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The “El Senor” experiment is a way for the net to bridge the cultural gap between the Spanish-language audience’s comfort-level with the Monday-Friday novela structure and the network’s interest in building franchises with multi-year legs. Telemundo’ past efforts to program U.S.-style weekly scripted drama series have fallen flat with viewers.

Sequels to popular novelas are not uncommon in Spanish-lingo TV, but “El Senor” was specifically designed to be a continuing storyline and to have a grittier tone than most romance-driven novelas.

“El Senor” centers on the saga of a powerful Mexican drug lord who is presumed dead but is actually hiding out after undergoing plastic surgery. The larger story aims to reflect the social and economic impact of the drug trade at a time of modernization in Mexico.

“Regular novelas usually end with the female protagonist having an effective conclusion to her (romantic interest). This story is based on facts and things that actually happened,” Mintz said. “There’s no real end for the characters yet.”

The same cast, showrunner and producers will be back at the helm of season two to ensure consistency. Securing those options upfront was an unusual twist to Telemundo’s dealmaking, especially as they weren’t sure whether “El Senor” would perform well enough to warrant a second season. But the novela proved to be a 10 p.m. hit for Telemundo, and it was also a big draw for the net online.

The shorter episode order (season two will consist of 75 hourlong segs) allows the net to bring higher production values to “El Senor,” including CG effects to enhance action sequences. A special hourlong episode will be produced for online airing to introduce new viewers to the show prior to the sophomore season bow in the spring.

In addition to making “El Senor” a more bankable franchise for Telemundo, the experiment with a seasonal model could make the series more valuable in sales to overseas buyers. So far, Telemundo has sold the show to outlets in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras and Bolivia.

Telemundo has been on a growth spurt thanks to increased investment and attention from its Peacock parent. The Miami-based operation has dramatically expanded the volume of novela production at its studio facilities in Florida and Mexico City.

Mintz’s team has made a concerted effort to appeal to younger Hispanics with novelas that reflect U.S. sensibilities and settings. The experiment with “El Senor” is another attempt to expand the form and differentiate Telemundo from its larger rival Univision, which remains the dominant player in Spanish-lingo TV.

“ ‘El Senor’ was a hybrid (initially) with having high production values and only 75 episodes,” Mintz said. “Now it is becoming even more of a hybrid by having seasons. If we are able to get to a third season of 75 episodes I think it will really be a game-changer.”

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