Televisa celebrates 50 years

Anniversary to feature telenovela special

MEXICO CITY — Mexican media conglom Televisa, the biggest producer of Spanish-language content, is celebrating its 50th anniversary of producing telenovelas — with a telenovela about telenovelas.

“Amor sin maquillaje” (Love Without Make-Up) will bow Sept. 17, featuring characters who are Televisa make-up artists.

“It will give audiences an insider’s view of how telenovelas are made,” says producer Rosy Ocampo.

The dream factory, as Televisa bills itself, is in a good position to know how telenovelas are made.

Since June 1958, when it was known as Telesistema Mexicano, the network has cranked out 720 shows starting with “Senda prohibida” (Forbidden Path).

In those days, transmissions were live and scripts were adapted from the immense library of Cuban radio dramas, which had inflamed Latino passions during the previous decades.

As Mexico’s only broadcaster, the web had a lock on huge auds. But today, Televisa is struggling to keep its sudsers fresh in the face of increasing competition.

Ratings have fallen over the past 15 years as Televisa’s only local commercial rival, TV Azteca, began to produce competitive telenovelas, cable penetration increased and U.S. series like “Lost” gained auds in Mexico.

Televisa managed to halt the slide with “La fea mas bella,” its hit adaptation of landmark Colombian telenovela, “Yo soy Betty, la fea,” the same show that inspired Salma Hayek’s production of “Ugly Betty” on ABC Stateside.

“La fea mas bella” was Televisa’s first primetime comedic telenovela, and it did boffo biz both south of the border and Stateside on Televisa’s programming partner Univision, which relies on Televisa product to fuel it’s primetime dominance with U.S. Hispanics.

Meanwhile, Televisa is also being pressured on its international sales as more Spanish-language webs in Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and NBC-Universal’s Telemundo produce telenovelas.

“We have a new challenge,” says producer Salvador Mejia. “The offer is bigger every day. Fifty telenovelas are being made every day, before there were 20.”

Mejia claims Televisa owns 95% of the world’s stock of telenovela scripts, the biggest library in the world. But while Televisa holds the telenovela past in its grasps, the future of the genre is less certain.

For decades, Televisa relied on recycling its scripts, including the trove of Cuban melodramas bought by pioneering producer Valentin Pimstein.

Those scripts were defined by their classic morality. Virginal women triumphing over all odds to win the, usually rich, man they love.

Now the trend is to rework more modern, original scripts from South America and sex-up the productions with Televisa’s glossy look.

The formula has worked well with hits like “La fea mas bella” and “Rebelde,” first produced in Argentina by the Cris Morena Group.

“We remake them better than the originals,” says Mejia. “And we give them a more international feel.”

But Mejia says in the face of competition, Televisa needs to use its proven know-how with “a new point of view” on the classic love stories.

So far, Televisa execs have stuck with the proven formula rather than risk running with original Mexican ideas.

Web has held off on producing “vanguard telenovelas” trumpeted at an up-front in late 2006 as a step away from classic telenovela conceits and a move towards grittier stories incorporating the themes of immigration and divorce.

The first such production is now slated to air early next year, Ocampo says.

Issa Lopez worked for years as a Televisa scribe before breaking out as one of Mexico’s hottest commercial filmmakers. She says she had original pilot after original pilot shot down by execs during her run.

Now she’s made a film satirizing telenovela production inside Mexico’s melodrama monolith. “Casi divas” is produced by Columbia TriStar’s Mexican shingle.

“Televisa needs to find an original Mexican voice,” Lopez says. “What we need to do is believe in the Mexican writer to come up with original, fantastic, very Mexican ideas that can compete with Colombia and Argentina, instead of sexing up the ideas they are producing.”

Until then, it’s back to the tried and true.

On Sept. 17, the same day that it preems “Amor sin maquillaje,” Televisa will bow the latest period telenovela from producer Carla Estrada, the pirate-themed “Pasion.”

As for “Amor sin maquillaje,” it will run 25 one-hour episodes, somewhat less than the usual run of at least 90 episodes (and much more if they are a hit). “Amor” will reference the web’s most-remembered telenovelas and include dozens of the web’s most famous thesps.

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