Telenovelas Pose Peril for Writers

Mar 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The telenovelas being produced to fill the schedule for News Corp.’s infant MyNetworkTV are turning into the latest battleground between the Writers Guild of America and studio executives.

Twentieth Television, which is planning to syndicate three of the serial dramas per year, is adapting Spanish-language scripts for North American audiences. The studio is designating writers on the shows as “translators,” making them ineligible for union membership, sources familiar with the situation said.

WGA negotiators are trying to persuade Twentieth to carve out union jobs on telenovelas, arguing that writers on the shows both translate from Spanish scripts and then adapt storylines to fit North American settings, people with knowledge of the talks said. A failure to secure union writing jobs on telenovelas would mark a setback for the WGA, which failed to win positions on the production staffs of reality shows.

Spokesmen for the WGA and Twentieth declined to comment.

Blocking the WGA would help studios keep production prices low for English-language telenovelas, which are cribbing from the Spanish-language genre that has fueled the growth of networks including Univision by riveting fans with serialized, lurid tales.

The WGA last year joined two high-profile lawsuits filed by former reality show writers who claim they were given titles such as “story editor” by producers seeking to stymie the union. The debate over reality shows has been clouded by the murky nature of the genre, which employs amateurs improvising their way through unscripted scenarios. A WGA loss on telenovelas, which are fully scripted, would signal a further erosion of its power.

Twentieth’s telenovelas each consist of 65 episodes that will run Monday through Friday in prime time over 13 weeks on MyNetworkTV, formed from the Fox Television Stations group after The WB and UPN consolidated into new network The CW.

The studio’s pilot for “Desire,” its first telenovela project, was shot with nonunion workers in San Diego, according to a report published in Variety. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employesand the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have since unionized the production on behalf of many crew positions and actors.

The budget for “Desire” is less than $500,000 per episode, according to people familiar with the production. That compares with about $2 million for hour-long prime-time dramas.