U.S. competition fuels Spanish drama

Local producers ramp up edgy new series

For the first time in years, more U.S. series than domestic skeins made Spain’s TV top 10 during many weeks in the 2006-07 season.

That worries local producers: Despite high ratings for hoary Spanish shows — often local comedies — 80% of new fiction has underperformed broadcasters’ channel share.

Among last season’s newbies, only Antena 3’s high-school chiller “Boarding School” and cop drama “Countdown,” broadcast by Sogecable’s tyro web Cuatro, clearly bettered in share.

But both projects underscore a determined response by producers and TV execs.

This year, DeAPlaneta broadcaster Antena 3 inked a three-year production deal with Spanish skein creator Globomedia.

“Boarding School,” the pact’s first fruit, debuted May 24 with the best local drama bow (25.8% share and 4.6 million viewers) since January 2005.

Unfolding at an exclusive boarding school, skein combines suspense, thriller, melodrama and visuals.

Following vet exec Mikel Lejarza’s appointment as general manager of Antena 3’s TV division last September, the web has upped production standards, incorporating HD lensing, location shoots and sweeping scenery.

“We want our series to say something visually,” says Antena 3 fiction director Sonia Martinez.

The chiller also reflects the impact of recent U.S. fiction.

“‘Boarding School’ marks a more sophisticated, plot-complex, suspense-driven serial,” says Eduardo Garcia Matilla, prexy of research company Multimedia Corp.

Flashback cop drama “Countdown” averaged an 11.5% share and 1.6 million viewers, bettering Cuatro’s average 7.4% share for the 2006-07 season.

U.S.-flavored — it plays like “24” meets “Dirty Harry” — the Globomedia production has Spanish pop star Dani Martin as hardboiled judicial agent Corso, cracking cases against the clock.

“We went for a high-concept, quickly identified format. As a new channel, we need instantly recognizable brands,” explains Miguel Morant, Cuatro’s fiction director. “Then we looked for a media icon — Martin — to channel this recognition.”

“Countdown’s” format helped sales agent Imagina Intl. presell it to French commercial broadcaster TF1, a milestone for Spanish TV fiction.

Cuatro bowed November 2005 with a limited-budget sked built around imports, at a time when U.S. scripted drama was making a comeback.

It has built a brand around Stateside series such as “House.” Its next challenge, says Morant, is to consolidate local primetime fiction.

In fact, that’s the challenge all around. One answer is genre.

“Genre-based fiction is high-risk. But the industry is maturing. It’s the right time for genre,” argues Daniel Ecija, Globomedia’s co-founder and producer.

For the 2007-08 season, under new prexy Luis Fernandez, pubcaster RTVE will bow detective series “Desaparecida.” Antena 3’s latest offering includes thriller series “Quart, el hombre de Roma.”

After hit redos of “Ugly Betty” and “Camera Cafe,” Telecinco will continue reversioning international fiction with Italy’s “CSI”-style “R.I.S.” and Argentina’s sleuth comedy “Hermanos y detectives.”

Market forces aid experimentation. “Fragmentation accelerates social habits,” Garcia Matilla argues. “The series target niches that weren’t considered before.”

Spain’s new fall lineup also marks attempts by powerful companies to break into primetime fiction. These players include Endemol, producer of “Quart,” tech-media giant Vertice 360’s Notro Films (“La familia Mata,” “Cuestion de sexo”) and publishing group Zeta’s FicciON TV (“El sindrome de Ulises”).

But challenges remain.

“U.S. dramas maintain tension over 50 minutes. We’ve got to cut running time from a traditional 70 minutes to 50,” Ecija says.

This would cut costs and aid international sales.

Despite problems, domestic drama won’t disappear. The rewards for hits are too high.

“National fiction is a profit pillar for broadcasters,” Ecija adds. Budgeted at $540,000-$946,000 an episode (vs. $3 million-plus in the U.S.), “its costs are way below any sports event, or mainstream cinema,” he says.

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