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Mipcom: Telemundo President Luis Silberwasser: ‘We’re Trying to Be More Relevant, More Real’

The Hispanic TV head talks programming philosophy, acquisitions, targets, cultivating Latino Pride, fixing weekends

MIPCOM — Zap on Telemundo these days and you will not find somnolent multi-camera multi-hundred episodes telenovelas, but fast-paced, higher-budgeted shoot-them-up narco mayhem (“The Lord of the Skies”), or undercurrents of women’s empowerment as a female prosecutor battles a heinous drug lord before turning coyote (“The Iron Lady”). Something has changed at the Spanish-language broadcast network.

For nearly all its history, in its battle with Univision, Telemundo was a distant also-ran. Now, for the first time in its history, with Telemundo besting Univision in weekday primetime, it’s a two-horse race. Telemundo president Luis Silberwasser, who joined Telemundo in 2014, spoke to Variety on the Hispanic Network’s ongoing makeover.

What’s the philosophy behind your production changes? 

In the last few years, our vision has been for Telemundo to define Spanish media and really change the perception that Spanish-language television, especially in the U.S.. is an inferior market level television. The perception of traditional novelas or melodramas was never great. We said that we needed to compare ourselves to series like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad.” Clearly we have a different strategy and a different target audience, and we’re not pretending to be making “Game of Thrones.”  But we’ve begun by changing our prime time, our ten o’clock slot and by introducing Super Series which are not novelas but shorter and come in multiple seasons. We pulled away from telenovelas. We’ve done biopics, such as of Juan Gabriel, “Until I Met You.” Over the last season, Telemundo has beaten the competition for the first time in its history.

How does your makeover affect international acquisitions?

The question is whether we just produce in-house or acquire programs from outside. We’ve just licensed and acquired the “MasterChef” format for a “MasterChef Latino.” It’s a testament to our interest in bringing something different, bigger-scale, to our weekend primetime, Sunday night.

Reporting your ratings spike, Variety made reference to your strategy of targeting bilingual and U.S.-born Hispanics with programs made in the U.S. and infused with multicultural sensibilities is resonating with viewers. Could you comment?

I agree with that analysis. We are primarily an exclusive Spanish-language network. However, we do recognize that the audience in the U.S. is changing. They are living in kind of bi-cultural, dual-language world where they are going to work in an English-language world but go home to a Spanish-language world.

Examples?

One would be last year’s “Bajo el mismo cielo, the story of a Mexican family which crosses the border and tries to settle down in the U.S. Then we have “Señora Acero”  who becomes a coyote, trying to smuggle immigrants across the border for people to have a better life, running the gauntlet of of narcos, the police and the immigration authorities. Far from every Hispanic has crossed the border but it’s a subject in everybody’s mindset. We’re trying to be more relevant and more real, with real stories that are happening today, and less traditional melodrama, past staples of rich and poor. We’re bringing very real situations onto our screen and they’re resonating,

Moving into more bio-series, Telemundo is able in a way to have its cake and eat it too. Bio-series refer to real people, realities but can be feel-good narratives showing how people who come from very humble origins triumph over adversity. Would you agree?

The beauty of bio series is their portrayal of the lives of people who have captured the imagination of our audience in different ways., such as Celia Cruz, who came from a very poor back ground, had to face up to racism, establish herself as a women singer in a man’s world. It was the first time that Telemundo introduced Afro-American characters into a novela.

People love these kind of stories. it is very close to the heart of what it takes to be Hispanic in the US.

Returning to international, what is the state of play on Telemundo International Studios? Are you near to announcing its first original series?

We are near to announcing it but not quite near enough. But it is an amazing and important initiative for Telemundo, our effort to create short-form – 13 episodes – high-end series of different budgets and scale. I hope we will have something to announce in maybe the next three months. It’s something that we are excited about.

Putting together “MasterChef Latino,” the bio-series, the acquisition of World Cup soccer rights, I get the sense that you’re playing to a sense of Latino pride. 

I hadn’t thought about it like that. But I think you’re on to something. We’ve started the process of trying to define new Hispanic media. That means showcasing people and things that have been the fabric of our lives, whether it is in culture, music, dance, cooking, drama. On our journey to redefine Spanish media, we also want to represent the best of Hispanic and what Latinos are all about. The World Cup wouldn’t be anything without the Latin American countries. We want to showcase the passion that Latin Americans bring to the sport as only Latin American countries do. So in many ways, we feel proud to be representing the best of the Hispanic American. 

Where would you like Telemundo to be in another two-to.three years? 

We are on the path to something really big and to ensuring that our content can travel. But we’ve only begun, it’s been three years. We’ve changed the perception of Hispanic TV. Having said that, we have a lot of work to do on weekends, and our daytime and news properties where we’re still not where we want to be. So we still have a lot of work to do to become the best not only in prime time. But when you add the World Cup and our investment in new headquarters where we are moving next year, here in Miami, a big state-of-the-art facility, all these thing point to a stronger Telemundo for the future.

 

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