Novelas’ Hot New Format

Dec 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The telenovela, a soap opera-like format that first became popular in Latin America but has spread across the globe, is coming to the domestic English-language market.

Twentieth Television, the programming and distribution division of Fox Television

Stations, announced last Tuesday that next fall it plans to launch “Desire,” a syndicated programming block of telenovelas, while ABC and CBS confirmed last week they each are developing telenovela projects for prime time next summer.

The forays into the world of telenovelas are expected to generate interest in the growing Hispanic market, and if the projects are successful they will also appeal to a wide range of young viewers, including audiences currently unfamiliar with the format.

Based on the telenovela format of relatively short, stripped runs, as opposed to the U.S. soap opera model of continuing story lines, Twentieth’s “Desire” will feature story arcs using 65 one-hour episodes, with each “Desire” miniseries stripped Monday through Friday over the span of 13 weeks. At the end of the 13 weeks, a new drama will launch.

“Desire” has been cleared on the Fox Television Stations for a fall 2006 start, likely in late fringe time periods. Local stations in other markets will have a chance to pick it up in January during the National Association of Television Program Executives convention in Las Vegas. Twentieth has targeted a third telenovela to round out the first season of “Desire,” but the company has already secured the rights to enough novela formats to air original seasons of “Desire” for five years.

“That’s how confident we are,” said Paul Buccieri, Twentieth’s president of programming.

The company has been working on its telenovela projects for close to a year. It has also bought the U.S. rights for the popular telenovelas “Table for Three” from Colombia-based production company Caracol and the Cuban program “Fashion House” from Miami’s XYSTUS. Twentieth will translate the scripts into English and shoot the U.S. versions in San Diego. Pilots of both have already been shot. The shows will be tweaked to appeal to a U.S. audience, said Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television.

“We have Americanized them ever so slightly,” Mr. Cook said, adding that “Desire” was being made available on a cash-plus-barter basis. Despite the connection audiences might make between telenovelas and traditional U.S. English-language soap operas, Twentieth’s “Desire” will not look like a daytime drama, Mr. Buccieri said.

“We don’t consider them soaps,” he said, noting that the two pilots were shot by directors from the world of independent feature film. “We are trying to cultivate them and give them as much of a cinematic look as possible.”

On the big three networks-ABC, CBS and NBC-weekday soap operas have been a staple since the birth of commercial television, but Fox does not have network programming during the day. Fox affiliates run a mix of news, off-network and first-run syndicated shows during the day. While head-to-head runs against the traditional soap operas seem a natural place to schedule “Desire,” general managers will have the ability to air the franchise in any daypart suitable to their needs, said Frank Cicha, VP of programming for Fox stations.

“This certainly has the flexibility to do a lot of different jobs,” Mr. Cicha said. “There really is a need for something new and fresh in dayparts that have for too long been stagnant with double and triple runs.”

Asked whether “Desire” will run against daytime dramas or be potential fare for early fringe, prime time or late fringe, Mr. Cicha said, “All of those scenarios will be considered.”

Mr. Buccieri said he first thought about adapting telenovelas for English-language audiences after watching his wife and mother-in-law talk on the phone about their favorite programs.

“I’ve been slowly pulled in,” he said. Over the course of several months Mr. Buccieri sent data on the format’s global popularity to Fox station executives, who over time began to warm to the idea of running the telenovelas.

ABC is taking a strategy similar to Twentieth’s by acquiring the rights to novelas that have already worked in other territories, while CBS is developing its own novela concepts with the help of domestic prime-time soap writers and U.S. screenwriters, as well as exploring international formats owned by other companies. ABC could not be reached for comment, while CBS declined comment.

While the success of the English-language telenovela format for the U.S. market is hardly guaranteed, the fact that production companies and networks are ready to take a shot bodes well for the industry, said Chuck Larsen, president of the distribution consulting company October Moon TV.

“You’ve got to be exploring these options, whether it’s a new delivery system or a different format,” Mr. Larsen said.

The U.S. versions of telenovelas may be a way to attract the growing Hispanic audience, particularly bilingual viewers and English-dominant Latinos who may be accustomed to watching telenovelas on Spanish-language channels, said Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for Carat USA.

“This may start to bring them into the fold,” Ms. Brill said.

That audience may be particularly attractive to the Fox stations, since it includes mostly youthful viewers, said Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate research director for Horizon Media.

“It’s certainly the kind of move that might be deemed long overdue if it’s successful,” he said.