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Global addiction

Telenovela format takes the world, and Hollywood, by storm

Hollywood television executives are dancing to a decidedly Latin beat these days:

  • NBC Universal is tapping sister company Telemundo to adapt one of its more popular telenovelas, “Body of Desire,” for a primetime berth.

  • CBS is experimenting with a telenovela hybrid with an eye for a 13-week summer run.

  • ABC is likewise toying with a telenovela-inspired limited-run series to perhaps go on Monday nights.

  • Twentieth Television has scheduled the first English-language telenovela, “Desire,” to air in the U.S. for a June debut, with 65 Monday-Friday episodes unspooling over 13 weeks.

What’s notable isn’t the sudden interest — it’s that it took so long.

The first telenovelas appeared in Brazil, Cuba and Mexico in the early 1950s and quickly became a staple of Spanish-language programming the world over.

And in the last several years, the genre has become a global phenomenon, with such disparate markets as Scandinavia, Germany and Eastern Europe producing homegrown telenovelas to great commercial success and huge ratings.

According to Carole Bardasano, director of marketing and format sales for FremantleMedia, part of the resistance to telenovelas among U.S. English-language broadcast networks was the genre’s structure, which depends heavily on the show being stripped daily.

“One of the biggest complexities when it comes for a broadcaster to decide their programming strategies is the way their on-air schedule works,” she notes. “In Latin America, stations are accustomed to horizontal programming vs. vertical programming like we see in the U.S. We build an audience following through timeslots across the week.

“Programs are usually stripped from Monday to Friday — or Saturday in some countries — and viewers tune in for a specific timeslot every single day for the run a particular show. In the U.S., shows are weekly and networks build their night on primetime differently every day of the week.

“Having to completely alter the way primetime is structured is definitely a challenge for TV stations,” yet she points out that there is a precedent for the strategy, which has proved successful for gameshows such as “Deal or No Deal,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and traditional daytime serials.

One of the challenges for Twentieth Television, says Guadalupe D’Agostino, VP of international sales for Venezuela-based RCTV, is to differentiate telenovelas from soap operas in the minds of potential viewers.

“Although there are some similarities, the telenovelas format is very different,” she explains. “Soap operas are much slower, and there are so many storylines. Telenovelas have a beginning, a middle and an end. It is not open-ended, and that’s what makes it attractive — the payoff is quick. You’re going to commit to watching the telenovelas, but it will change every five months. That brings a great variety to the genre.”

With audience fragmentation a continuing concern for networks as entertainment choices grow exponentially via developing digital platforms, Bardasano says it is the telenovela’s limited-run format and good old-fashioned storytelling that will create a loyal audience following.

“It’s going to be between six months and eight months, not more than 150-200 episodes. So you’re always going to get the full commitment from the viewer. Each episode is so packed, and they always leave a cliffhanger so that you cannot miss the next one.”

Both executives believe there will be interest from international markets in “Desire” and any other English-language telenovela offerings U.S. producers bring to the market.

For one thing, says Bardasano, “We can expect higher production values, and there will be much interest, especially in non-Spanish-speaking territories where they won’t have to be dubbed or subtitled like they have been for so many years with the Latin telenovelas in Europe.”

Even in Latin America, the birthplace of the format, D’Agostino says the U.S. studios will make sure their product gets a sampling. “When they sell their movies and series, they might package the telenovelas with it, and that way they can give some broadcasters the telenovelas to try first.”

However, whether the U.S.-produced skeins will be successful internationally remains to be seen.

Bardasano says part of the genre’s success is its format. “Telenovelas are entirely aspirational. It offers viewers an escape from their daily struggles by presenting a perfect world and love fantasy with a lifestyle to which people aspire.

“Most importantly, it gives hope. Telenovelas are structured to always have a happy ending no matter what. Since the duration on air of a telenovela is between six to eight months, the viewer gets wrapped into the story; they suffer along with the character, but they always know that it will have a happy ending. That is a must for a telenovela. This is something the viewers want to come home to.

“It’s a formula that has been tested and proven. The international productions going on now with such great results have validated telenovelas as a global genre.”

D’Agostino isn’t sure that U.S. producers understand the emotional aspect of the format that is central to its enduring popularity.

“I am very interested in seeing how the American companies will interpret that, because it is not at all the kind of programming that U.S. broadcasters are used to producing. Obviously, they’re great at producing dramas and sitcoms, but viewers usually don’t feel the same kind of connection with those characters that they do in telenovelas, which are really very simple stories. If you make something too sophisticated, it’s not going to have the right emotional connection, and that is going to be a problem.

“I have read that some producers want to change the telenovelas, they want to try something new. And then you have ABC, who says they only want to broadcast twice a week. But that’s not the way a telenovelas plays — it’s got to become a daily habit.

“If they do it correctly, the American broadcasters might find the goose that lays the golden eggs. But if they’re going to take our telenovelas and change them, we will have to wait to see the reaction of the public.”

Both Twentieth Television and NBC Universal declined comment.

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