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Latin America’s Telenovelas Face Challenges From Online Competition, Shorter Series

For years, Latin American TV dramas have centered on the same old stories of passion, betrayal and revenge. Rich old men woo humble young beauties, and prodigal sons return home to childhood sweethearts and troubled families in melodramatic sagas spanning as many as 200 episodes.

A change, however, is under way. Competition from online platforms and growing familiarity with award-winning series from abroad are prompting Latin America’s TV giants to up their game and make shorter, tighter, more sophisticated and increasingly topical dramas to complement their famously lucrative — and famously long — telenovelas.

“Players like Netflix and Amazon are starting to produce their own programs, and that has increased the demand for locally produced content here in Brazil,” says Andrucha Waddington, producer and director of “Under Pressure,” a hospital drama that won four Fipa d’Or awards in France in January. “Creatively it is very good news.”

Brazil, Latin America’s biggest country, is at the forefront of the move toward what one exec called “a new age,” with shows such as acclaimed prison drama “Jailers” and “Thirteen Days Away From the Sun,” the tale of a corrupt construction boss. But the trend is happening throughout Latin America as program makers target hipper young audiences reared on series such as “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones.”

In Argentina, “Sandro de America,” a 13-episode biopic of the late singer Roberto “Sandro” Sánchez, ended its recent run with an audience share of more than 50%. The show’s success prompted Telefe to buy one of Brazil’s new hits, the 16-part “Justice,” which the broadcaster plans to screen Monday through Thursday for a month, says Bertrand Villegas of research agency The Wit.

In Mexico, Televisa recently ordered an undisclosed number of eight- to 10-episode shows, most of them to be developed, produced and distributed by new subdivision Televisa Alternative Originals, Villegas says. Fox Networks Latin America is also betting on a host of new co-produced dramas, as are DirecTV Latin America and the Turner Group, both of which signed deals with Spain’s Mediapro Group, one of Southern Europe’s biggest independent film and TV companies.

In Brazil, dominant player TV Globo is revamping its creative process by establishing a writers’ workshop specifically to produce snappier dramas and by giving more opportunities to women. Its new, shorter series leaven a primetime schedule stuffed with telenovelas that typically last between 160 and 190 episodes. (“Empire,” which dominated screens in 2014-15, spun out over 203 installments.)

“The demand for audiovisual content, available on multiple platforms, has never been so great.”
Silvio de Abreu, Globo

Some of the new shows are being co-produced with Brazil’s top movie production houses; others are collaborations with foreign partners. The new willingness to co-produce has been a boon for local companies such as Conspiração (“Under Pressure”), Gullane (“Jailers”) and director Fernando Meirelles’ O2 Filmes, which collaborated with Globo on five recent short series, including “Happily Ever After” and “City of Men.”

“The demand for audiovisual content, available on multiple platforms, has never been so great,” says Silvio de Abreu, Globo’s chief content officer for daily fiction. “To meet that demand, we’ve experimented with new models of content creation, production and distribution. We’ve made investments to increase the scale of production on our new projects, and that has diversified our catalog.”

The diversification in programming marks a definite shift, but experts stress that shorter series won’t be replacing big telenovelas anytime soon, especially in markets like Chile, Colombia and Peru, where the cost of making local dramas is prohibitive. Besides filling the coffers of companies such as Globo, the telenovelas also dominate airtime, making it hard for new series to find an audience, some writers say.

“Right now, when the telenovela ‘The Other Side of Paradise’ is on air, 60% of all Brazilian viewers are tuned in,” says Mauricio Stycer, TV critic for Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. “Globo can’t give up on novelas, so they’re trying to do both novelas and series. They know that change is going to come. They just don’t know how quickly.”

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