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Original content grows in Latin America

MIAMI — Gone are the days when pay TV channels in Latin America relied solely on the programming muscle of their U.S. parents to fill skeds.

Even as overall pay TV penetration remains low, ad sales are booming and local programming is helping to fuel some of that growth and bring in bigger auds.

In addition to selling traditional spots, certain regional shows can generate revenue from sponsorships and product placements.

Ratings and ad sales growth “are tied to more localized programming,” says Gretchen Colon,senior VP of advertising sales and business development for Turner Broadcasting System Latin America.

The group’s newsnet CNN en Espanol saw Mexican ratings jump 74% following the launch of a half-hour news talker “Aristegui,” broadcast only in Mexico.

Bigger groups — the likes of Discovery Networks Latin America, with its stable of nonfiction nets, or premium service HBO — have long been producing local shows.

But networks not known for in-region efforts — among them the History Channel, Nickelodeon Latin America, Sony Entertainment Channel and Fox — all have major local projects in production or just hitting the air, most in the reality and nonfiction realm.

While sister network MTV Latin America has adapted the U.S. channel’s formats like “Room Raiders” or “MTV Unplugged” to the region, Nickelodeon Latin America’s in-region efforts were limited to original shorts or interstitials.

Now the network is gearing up for the May 15 bow of its first live-action original scripted series for the region, “Skimo.”

Nickelodeon has co-produced 14 segs of the half-hour teen comedy with Mexico’s Macias Group.

Series features an all-Mexican cast, nearly all unknowns, says VP of programming and creative strategy Tatiana Rodriguez.

“Local content definitely makes a difference,” Rodriguez says, pointing to the big response to Nick’s only series acquired in-region to date, the puppet newscast parody “31 Minutos,” from Aplaplac Prods. in Chile.

Rodriguez acquired the sked-challenging 31-minute series in 2004. It airs on all of Nick’s feeds and is dubbed in Portuguese for Brazil.

“The beauty of ’31 Minutos’ is it has universal relevance,” she says.

In scoping out local productions for acquisitions, Rodriguez finds most other regional youth programming “too folkloric.”

“It doesn’t translate into the rest of the region,” she says.

Rodriguez is also trying to develop an animated series, working with an Argentine producer and Nick Intl.

The History Channel bowed “Historias secretas,” its first original series, on April 24. Skein profiles major Latin American cities, highlighting little-known stories and facts.

Each hourlong episode is hosted by a local personality including TV journo/host Daniel Malnati in Buenos Aires, the debut episode; actor Bruno Bichir in Mexico City, airing May 22; and Nelson Bustamante in Caracas. Other cities will include Bogota, Santiago de Chile and Sao Paolo.

History Channel is co-producing with Buenos Aires-based shingle Cuatro Cabezas.

“One of the most important goals is to offer historical content that is locally relevant,” says executive VP and general manager Eduardo Ruiz.

History Channel has made one-off original docs for Latin America in the past, although none last year.

Similarly, sister net A&E has produced regional profiles for signature series “Biography,” and is prepping one on Argentine dancer Julio Bocca, a co-production with Magnetis, another Buenos Aires shingle.

Earlier this year History Channel aired the original docu “Christ the Redeemer,” about the statue which stands over Rio de Janeiro, on its Brazil feed.

It broadcast the two-hour original docu “El golpe” (The Coup) on March 24, the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s military coup, and repeated the co-production with Anima Films on April 23.

 In Argentina, the original broadcast garnered 1.62 rating points among adults 35-49, making it the No.1 show among that pay TV demo, and History said it was the top-rated show pan-regionally (ratings do not include satellite homes), also among adults 35-49.

Another Brazil project is in development, as History moves away from Argentine themes, a legacy of channel’s origins in a merger with the Argentine channel TV Quality.

On the reality front, two pan-regional programs are in pre-production.

Casting began in Caracas on April 26 for “Latin American Idol.” FremantleMedia is producing its format for the Sony Entertainment Channel, which plans to launch the singing competish in July.

Venezuelan Erika de la Vega and Argentine Monchi Balestra have been tapped as co-hosts and judges are Miami-based pop star Jon Secada, Mexican Elizabeth Meza and music impresario Gustavo Sanchez.

Castings will also be held in Bogota, Mexico City and Buenos Aires.

The competition will air live from Buenos Aires.

Also aiming for a South American winter bow is mating game “La Chica FX,” which Fox has tapped the ever in-demand Cuatro Cabezas to produce.

Three Argentineans, three Mexicans, two Brazilians, two Venezuelans, a Colombian and a Chilean will compete for the title of ideal gal, as defined by FX, charged with such tasks as cooking a burger, changing a tire, washing a car, and pole dancing.

Judges will eliminate contestants over the 12 episodes, beginning in August.

Two versions are planned: a tamer one for primetime on the Fox and FX channels, and a racier one for late-night on FX.

Show is the brainchild of Fox Factory, a content development division for the group’s Latin American channels and different media formed last fall.

It is headed by Miami-based Fernando Semenzato, formerly of Turner Latin America, with other staff in Buenos Aires.

Fox Factory has 14 original projects — series, docus and other formats — in development to air before year-end 2007.

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