Telenovelas are addictive, and millions of Latinos are hooked. But even as these popular soap operas continue to win over viewers and advertisers, the genre's forays onto English-language networks in the U.S. and new spins on a traditional format raise questions about the future shape of novelas.
“If you give it a chance, the telenovela will take you and grab you. The person who has not been hooked by a telenovela has not really sat down to watch one,” said associate professor Carolina Acosta-Alzuru of the University of Georgia. “It is an impressively attractive genre.”
Men and women, young and old, recent immigrants, as well as U.S.-born Hispanics all get their fix five nights a week on Spanish-language broadcasters. The buzz that gripped Hollywood about English-language novelas has died down, but MyNetwork TV now airs two novelas six nights a week. ABC last month began airing Ugly Betty, a weekly show based on a popular Colombian telenovela. And NBC is in the midst of casting an English-language version of a Telemundo-produced telenovela. As a result, Spanish and English novelas are attracting larger audiences.
La Fea Más Bella (The Prettiest Ugly Girl) is the most popular telenovela of the moment. The show is a Televisa-produced remake of successful Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, la Fea that aired on Telemundo and is also the basis of ABC's Ugly Betty sitcom, which has been strong for the network.
LIFE IMITATES ART
Emblematic of the cultural phenomenon the telenovela has become, La Fea Más Bella has even been at the center of a political controversy in Mexico.
The show began airing in the midst of Mexico's heated presidential campaign. In the final week before the July 2 vote, two characters made scripted on-air comments, which were widely interpreted as propaganda in support of the conservative candidate Felipe Calderon who won the election with a 0.6% margin of victory. The vote tally was hotly contested by the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and challenged in a federal election tribunal.
The tribunal rejected López Obrador's legal arguments, as well as the charge that La Fea provided support to his opponent.
But the controversy sparked widespread criticism and accusations of inappropriate political meddling by Televisa.
La Fea Más Bella and Televisa's other telenovelas air on Univision thanks to a 25-year program licensing agreement that is being challenged in federal court (see separate story, page 4A). Legal wrangling aside, La Fea Más Bella is the highest-rated primetime show, English or Spanish, among kids 2 to 11 and 12 to 17. It is watched by 2.5 million to 3 million Hispanics each night.
“Kicking ass,” is how Grupo Gallegos media director Ken Deutsch described its ratings performance. The novela began airing in the U.S. in April and will likely continue at least through the end of February.
La Fea Más Bella is currently among the top five novelas to have aired on the network, according to Univision senior vice president of research Ceril Shagrin. “Our audience loves it. They are addicted to it, they are watching it and it is appealing to everybody” she said.
The rest of Univision's telenovelas are strong performers, but it has been more than a year since the network has had a La Fea-style blockbuster. Shagrin attributed La Fea's success, in part, to the fact that “it is the kind of novela that families can watch together.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Family viewing lies at the heart of the telenovela's success, said Oswald Mendez, director of integrated marketing at The Vidal Partnership.
“Guess what? The person that controls the television at that time is the mom, not the kids. 'You want to eat? You are going to watch my novela,'” Mendez said.
There is a greater willingness by Latino teenagers to sit and watch television with their parents, said Carl Kravetz president of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies.
“Interestingly enough, Latino teens don't think that hanging out with their parents is uncool,” Kravetz said. “If you are hanging out with parents who don't feel particularly comfortable in English and would rather watch television in Spanish, you are probably doing family viewing of telenovelas and that is not surprising to me ... The evidence is in the ratings.”
The ratings and the presence of all manner of Hispanic demographics make novelas attractive to major advertisers trying to reach a broad audience. “Nothing is more natural than having our advertising, having our message portrayed on the highest-rated programs in Hispanic media,” said Isaac Mizrahi, director of multicultural marketing at Sprint Nextel Corp.
“That's where our viewers are and that is a great place to reach them, and so that's where we look to place advertising,” said Deutsch. “They embrace it. They are engaged with it.”
A TIDY SUM
Furthermore, the premium to advertise in Spanish-language primetime is lower than the premium that exists for the general market, so comparatively it is inexpensive. Even so, it is a tidy sum. Telenovelas represent at least a third of all broadcast revenue for the Spanish-language networks.
The question remains, though, how much money novelas will make for U.S. English-language broadcasters. At one point earlier this year, ABC, CBS, NBC and MyNetwork TV had all announced they were planning to develop telenovelas. It was a dramatic breakthrough coming after years of strong ratings performances by novelas in more than a hundred countries around the world. “The United States is behind in this area. It is practically the final frontier left for the telenovela to conquer,” said Acosta-Alzuru.
SHAKY IN STATES
Desire and Fashion House were the first two novelas to begin airing on MyNetwork in early September. The one hour episodes run in primetime Monday to Friday with a weekly recap on Saturday. Both programs adhere to the telenovela format and tone. They focus on a love story and air for thirteen weeks. Each show is based on a Colombian telenovela.
Paul Buccieri, programming director for MyNetwork TV, takes much of the credit and depending on the results, perhaps eventually blame for the telenovela strategy. Buccieri got to know telenovelas through his Latina mother-in-law, who would translate as they watched novelas such as Rosalinda on Univision.
Buccieri acknowledged it is an “ambitious undertaking” and represents “a lot of real estate” but is convinced the format will work in the U.S. if given sufficient time.
After only a few weeks, the ratings and critical reception have been lackluster. One media buyer at a Hispanic agency called the MyNetwork TV novelas “baaaaad. Just because they copy our format doesn't mean it is good programming.”
Buccieri continues to meet with all the major Latin American production powerhouses and purchase additional telenovelas for translation and adaptation to the U.S. market. Meanwhile, NBC has begun casting Body of Desire, which is an English-language version of the Telemundo-produced Cuerpo de Deseo. And ABC has decided to put its own twist on the telenovela format.
In fact, what ABC has done with Ugly Betty is twist the format beyond recognition. Ugly Betty will air once a week and has, in effect, been converted into a serial comedy. Telenovela purists may view it as sacrilege, but the critical reception has been positive and the show has been given a prime slot on Thursday night. Kravetz is unfazed by Ugly Betty's transformation into a sitcom. He said, “We could very well be dabbling right now and trying to discover exactly what the hybrid is.”
A successful primetime hybrid on one of the major networks might add some cachet to telenovelas, which are often either scorned or taken for granted. “Anything that has mass appeal and is reaching the masses, even though it does very well, people look down on it,” said Deutsch.
Nonetheless, novelas are “a cornerstone of Spanish-language broadcasting,” said Randy Nonberg president and chief operating officer of the Una Vez Más station group of Azteca America affiliates.
In overall terms, the notion that novelas constitute a Hispanic programming cornerstone is unassailable. The proof is in the ratings and the ad sales. But there is a significant and influential minority of programmers strongly suggesting the future lies elsewhere.
The telenovela naysayers can be broadly divided into two camps: One group consists of executives who produce English-language programming for Latino youth, and the other consists of media executives of Spanish-language independents, as well as cable networks.
“I just don't think it is the only format,” said Cynthia Hudson-Fernandez, MegaTV vice president of programming. “There is a saturation of it in the Hispanic market.”
Hudson-Fernandez professes to love the telenovela format and, in fact, wrote an English-language novela almost a decade ago. She points to increasing ratings for her station and that of other stations that do not run novelas in primetime. The Hispanic market is growing sufficiently to support increased viewership of novelas and non-novela Spanish-language programming.
To the uninitiated, the appeal of the telenovela and the dependency it creates in millions of viewers can seem baffling. Storylines are implausible, characters can be cartoonish and the endings are invariably happy.
“The plot is always the same,” said Patricio Wills, head of development at Telemundo. “In the first three minutes of the first episode the viewer already knows the novela will end with that same couple kissing each other. A telenovela is all about a couple who wants to kiss and a scriptwriter who stands in their way for 150 episodes.”
And there are even fewer surprises for viewers of remakes such as La Fea Más Bella. Latino viewers know exactly what to expect of La Fea but still they turn out in large numbers each night. Why? Univision's Shagrin replied, “It is just the kind of story that captures the heart.”