Televisa sets sights on U.S. market

Mexico firm's Anglo arm remakes telenovelas for the States

MEXICO CITY — Production company Televisa USA may be just a few months old, but it has hit the ground running, helping parent company Televisa, the world’s largest creator of Spanish-language content, develop a hybrid of English-language primetime programing that unites the telenovela model with top U.S. talent.

Televisa USA taps the deep pockets of its parent, Televisa — whose profits were $550 million in 2011 — and its vast library of hit telenovelas plus its decades of experience and contacts in the biz, all in service to its long-stated desire to get into the U.S. market.

The Televisa USA team is working on three projects: “Hollywood Heights,” a co-production with Sony Pictures Television for Nickelodeon; “Devious Maids,” a co-production with Mark Cherry, Oasis Media Group and ABC Studios for Lifetime; and a children’s song-and-dance reality competition show based on Televisa’s hit “Pequenos gigantes” (Little Giants) with Mark Burnett and Oasis.

The Mexico City-based conglom’s global unit Televisa Intl., headed by Fernando Perez Gavilan, is backing all Televisa USA projects.

Televisa USA prexy Paul Presburger, who also heads the Lionsgate-Televisa joint venture film shingle Pantelion, and chief creative officer Michael Garcia, former VP of drama development at HBO (“The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “True Blood”), began putting Televisa USA together last summer, moving into their Santa Monica offices in the fall.

“Our first message in starting this was telling (interested parties) we are no longer licensing (formats from Televisa); we are co-producing,” Presburger says, adding that Televisa is taking advantage of the fact that “the biggest market in the world is right next door.”

Presburger describes a three-pronged approach for the shingle: bring telenovelas to Anglo audiences; adapt formats with top industry professionals; and develop original content with major allies, like Lionsgate.

The spinoff’s overhead is low — it has just six employees. “We’re not handling physical production, and this allows us to be very lean,” says Presburger, adding that the company is hands-on in everything from casting to watching dailies and giving notes, as well as serving as a bridge to Televisa, tapping the conglom’s experiences with original projects.

It’s open to all TV distribution models, focusing more on finding the right partner with the right project than leaning on the same production or distribution entities.

“Hollywood Heights” — an 80-episode series — is a perfect example of the nightly primetime dramas Televisa USA is producing, Presburger says. Based on Televisa’s hit telenovela “Alcanzar una estrella” (To Reach a Star), the skein follows a group of young Hollywood up-and-comers, schemers and wannabes with typical telenovela flair.

The commission began with talks between Televisa and Nickelodeon and continued when Presburger and Garcia met MTV Networks Intl. chief operating officer Pierluigi Gazzolo at the Mipcom TV mart in Cannes in October.

Garcia says Televisa USA frequently draws on its parent’s expertise when making a show like “Hollywood Heights.” “We refer back to Mexico, and they say, ‘Well, this is the type of thing you would need to have happen over this arc in this week,’?” Garcia says. “It’s been a great marriage.”

Presburger believes previous attempts to bring telenovelas to English-language auds failed because they were almost direct translations of the Spanish-language version. With “Heights,” the kernel of the idea is similar, he says, but the scripts have been adapted for U.S. auds.

Series will be stripped Monday to Friday and, like the original Spanish-language skeins, will typically run for 80 episodes — or 16 weeks from beginning to end.

“Think about what Terry Winter is doing on ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and what David Chase did on ‘The Sopranos,’?” he says. “If the storytelling demands a main character dies, then they’re going to get killed. That’s not a typical thing for network TV.”

Presburger adds that the shorter time frame allows telenovelas to create character arcs that hook viewers.

“Daytime soaps are not really of a quality that can be shown on primetime,” Presburger says. “What we’ve created with our partners Sony and Nickelodeon is a kind of hybrid … having the efficiency of daytime, (and) shooting with primetime players, whether writers or actors.”

“Devious Maids,” a redo of “Ellas son la alegria del hogar” (The Disorderly Maids of the Neighborhood), follows five Latinas who work for the rich and famous in Beverly Hills. Televisa USA developed the show for ABC with Oasis, but Lifetime confirmed a 12-episode pickup in June after the Alphabet passed.

The execs also say they are working with Burnett on an as-yet-unnamed song-and-dance competition show, similar to “Pequenos gigantes.” That show peaked at 10.6 million viewers for Univision, which has a content deal with Televisa.

While Televisa provides up to 90% of the original content on Univision, Presburger and Garcia are quick to point out that Televisa USA is a separate entity aimed squarely at English speakers.

With the 2010 U.S. census showing that 60% of the growth in the Latino demographic is coming from U.S.-born, English-speaking Latinos, many Stateside media outlets, such as ABC and Univision, are modifying marketing and development strategies in response to the changing realities of the Latino community.

Presburger notes that Sony has lots of experience producing daily series and soaps in the U.S., and adapting and producing novelas internationally through its international production units. But he believes Televisa USA is fashioning something different, and points out that it is not aiming for the Latino demo, but rather for a wider market.

“The themes and our style of storytelling are for all English-speaking households,” he says. What: Televisa USA develops programming for U.S. market.

The takeaway: Parent company’s library offers fodder for remakes and