Time to Tune In Telenovelas


The telenovela, the popular, racy staple of Spanish-language television, has always had the potential to be a network or syndication success. But it’s been a long time coming.

The success of such scripted dramas — think of them as an edgier type of soap opera — has always been apparent overseas. Telenovelas pull large audiences throughout Latin America and Europe.

Yet, as shows like American Idol and Big Brother have demonstrated, the U.S. market has had great success in adapting tried-and-tested reality formats for broadcast. There’s no reason why it cannot do the same with telenovelas.

To date, uncertainty has halted U.S. programmers from taking a risk on the telenovela. However, recent plans by both NBC Universal and Fox’s MyNetwork TV to develop telenovelas show that U.S. buyers have now found a model that, in their view, balances the economic and creative aspects of the genre.

Financially, telenovelas are an attractive format: Costly scripting can be eradicated, as concepts can be repurposed from the original Spanish versions; and big stars do not need to be recruited, as storylines are the key driver. The versatility of character-driven content also means the telenovela can work in an evening or a daytime slot.

The content of telenovelas also has mass-market appeal. Long-term character development and on-screen conflict have always been a recipe for series success.

The popularity of these is demonstrated in both scripted and unscripted programming. Character-driven reality shows have proven to be very popular, with shows like VH1’s Breaking Bonaduce and A&E Network’s Growing Up Gotti providing the character conflict that is so appealing to audiences.

The telenovela will give networks an exciting form of soap opera. Because the content will push the envelope, eyeballs from a wide range of demographics will be drawn to the shows. In addition, because the English-language telenovela will retain the core plot characteristics of its Spanish predecessors, the shows are likely to retain their core Hispanic fan base. These telenovelas — delivered in a modernized, repackaged format and aired in a primetime slot — are also likely to draw younger crossover fans from the Hispanic market.

In turn, just as we have seen reality characters explode into stars, so too will we see the emergence of telenovela stars. Larger-than-life characters, played by actors likely to be unknown at the point of casting, will soon turn those performers into household names as viewers across the country become engrossed in their fictionalized daily lives.

However, the success of the telenovela is still dependent upon the genre’s pioneers. Fox and other outlets must be sure to spend their promotional ad dollars wisely, differentiating their product. We must strive to stay true to the genre’s origins and not allow this new programming to simply lose itself in the existing mix of content.

If audiences are unsure as to how or why this differs from a soap or reality show, then why will they tune in? Failure to get it right first time will mean advertisers saying adios to the telenovela.

Like the viewers of any good soap, we industry folks will be riveted as we watch this storyline unfold.