Telemundo is loading up its 2016-17 programming slate with a variety of programs that break the mold for Spanish-language television in the U.S., from costume-drama miniseries to a politically charged bio-drama about Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to unscripted formats that blend English and Spanish.
The goal is to differentiate the NBCUniversal-owned broadcast network from its dominant rival, Univision, by aggressively courting the younger, bilingual generation of Hispanic viewers who have grown up in the U.S. Telemundo has been encouraged by the success of its experiments with new formats such as last year’s musical bio-drama series “Celia,” about salsa music legend Celia Cruz, which was a hit for the network and drew a much higher than usual concentration of bilingual viewers.
“The palette of the Hispanic audience is evolving,” said Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal International Group and NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises. “It is sophisticated.”
Telemundo’s pursuit of U.S.-born Hispanics sets a high bar because those viewers can move freely between English- and Spanish-language programming, meaning that Telemundo has infinitely more competition. The network is focused on improving its production values and the variety of programming on its air. More than anything else, execs said, Telemundo shows need to reflect the realities of Hispanics who have grown up in the U.S. with a mix of mainstream American and Latino-specific cultural influences.
“Our viewers are living in two worlds — they work in English and then they go home and live in Spanish,” said Luis Silberwasser, Telemundo and NBC Universo president. “The filter of everything we do is that our shows are tailor-made for U.S. Hispanics who live in this country.”
To that end, Telemundo has developed what it calls “Super Series,” or hybrid novelas that have shorter episode runs than traditional novelas — 60 to 80 episodes rather than 120-plus — and are designed to return for multiple seasons. The storytelling in these series is grittier and earthier than the fantastical tone of many traditional telenovelas. Telemundo is spending more money on production with an emphasis on location shoots. With Super Series including drug lord drama “El Senor de los Cielos,” which will be back for its fifth season, and its new spinoff “El Chema,” the flawed anti-hero that launched a thousand cable dramas has found a home on Telemundo.
“This is a further step away from traditional melodramas,” Silberwasser said. “These are dramatic and suspensful. These characters are more challenged, morally.”
Telemundo’s emphasis on changing the formula is an effort to draw a contrast against Univision, which obtains most of its novela programming from Mexico’s Televisa and other Latin American sources.
Univision at its upfront event later this week will highlight its experimentation with different forms and its efforts to reach the fast-growing millennial Hispanic demo with digital content assets such as Fusion, the Root and the Onion. Telemundo sees an opening at present as Univision has suffered ratings declines in primetime while Telemundo has made slow but steady progress with its Super Series formats.
With Univision and Telemundo investing more in content, the race for market share with this demo is on, as was made clear by the top brass that NBCUniversal assembled at a pre-upfront event May 12 in New York to talk up the Telemundo story.
The sales pitch to advertisers is simple, Conde observed. “Hispanics are the biggest growth opportunity for any business in today,” he said. “The population growth is having cultural, political, social and economic ramifications across this country. Americans now consume and buy more salsa than they do ketchup.”
Another priority for Telemundo in the coming season will be the drama series “Guerra de Idolos,” which has shades of “Empire” in revolving around a power struggle at a family-owned music giant. The series will feature original music.
Telemundo is investing in event miniseries, episodes of which will air on a weekly basis on Sunday nights rather than the Monday-Friday strips that are the norm for Spanish-language TV. The first efforts will be a costume drama “Cortes,” telling the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico; and “El Cesar,” the rags-to-riches story of Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez.
Notably, “El Cesar” hails from Disney’s Latin American production unit, a sign that even the world’s largest media company sees opportunities for Spanish-language TV production. Sony Pictures TV is behind “El Comandante,” the Chavez bio-series that Telemundo brass expect will ruffle some feathers as Telemundo’s first-ever foray into telling the story of a Latin American political figure. The clip screened made it clear “El Comandante” is no hagiography.
Telemundo’s weekend primetime blocks will remain largely devoted to family-friendly programming including its take on “The Voice” franchise, “La Voz Kids.” Don Francisco, the longtime host of Univision’s “Sabado Gigante,” will host a newsmaker interview program and a talent show with kids. His production banner will also field a game show involving kids and their pets. Francisco joined Telemundo in March on the heels of Univision’s cancelation of “Sabado Gigante.”
NBC Universo, Telemundo’s cable sibling, has struggled to find a significant audience since the former Mun2 was relaunched early last year with the NBC branding.
The big initiative for NBC Universo next season is “The Riveras,” a reality show that follows the five adult children of the late Latin music superstar Jenni Rivera. Rivera, who died in a plane crash in 2012, had her own reality series, “I Love Jenni,” on Mun2 prior to her death. Like “I Love Jenni,” the language spoken on “The Riveras” is predominantly English (it will air with subtitles).
The deal for “The Riveras” also encompasses plans for additional Jenni Rivera-inspired projects through Telemundo and NBC Universo.
(Pictured: “El Comandante”)