By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
The most striking piece of evidence that bicultural Hispanics are being taken seriously in today’s television marketplace can be found on the general-market broadcast networks, which are increasingly offering programming aimed directly at them.
Last season, Hispanic characters such as Fernando Sucre, played by Amaury Nolasco, on Fox’s “Prison Break” and the Solis family on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” peppered the prime-time landscape. These shows were among the highest-rated general-market shows for the 18 to 49 Hispanic demographic-along with earlier episodes of “American Idol,” before the Hispanic contestants were eliminated, according to analysis of Nielsen’s top-rated shows among Hispanic homes by Tapestry’s Laura Hernandez and Elena Marroquin.
This year the experiment is being taken a step further. The new MyNetworkTV, launched by News Corp. in the wake of the merger of The WB and UPN, is building an entire network on the English-language telenovela, stripped Latin-style five nights a week. “Desire,” based on the Colombian novela “Mesa Para Tres,” chronicles the exploits of two brothers on the run from the mob while vying for the attentions of the same girl, played by the saucy Michelle Belegrin. “Fashion House,” adapted from the Cuban potboiler “Salir de Noche,” revolves around the cutthroat fashion industry and stars Bo Derek and Morgan Fairchild.
So far ratings for the strips leave much to be desired, with each show averaging under a 1 household rating and attracting just over 1 million viewers. The network says it has not ordered separate ratings from Nielsen to measure how many Hispanic homes are tuning in, but fans of the Spanish-language originals complain that some of the plot lines have been omitted in the U.S. versions, slowing down the narrative.
The challenge for MyNetworkTV is figuring out how to condense dramas that ran originally for anywhere from 120 to 180 hours down to 65, the length the network has set for each novela, said Paul Buccieri, head of programming for MyNetworkTV.
Focus groups conducted with fans of the telenovela format have suggested “Desire” tended toward the realistic whereas “Fashion House” had more of a flair for the melodramatic, to which viewers responded more favorably, Mr. Buccieri said. “The Heiress” and “Dangerous Love,” dramas that are slated to premiere in March, will be much more over the top in tone.
ABC, which has probably done the most among the mainstream networks to program to acculturated Hispanics, premieres “Ugly Betty” on Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. (ET). It is adapted from the most famous telenovela of them all, “Yo Soy Betty La Fea,” an ugly duckling story about a young woman trying to make her way as an assistant at the magazine that is the bible of the fashion industry.
“Betty La Fea” has created a phenomenon in nearly every country that has adapted it. Originally produced in Colombia for local network RCN, it first aired in the U.S. in 2001 on Telemundo, putting market leader Univision’s archrival on the map. Univision, in fact, is currently running a Mexican version of the drama Monday through Friday at 8 p.m. On every night since its premiere April 24 it has beaten at least one of the Big 4 networks in ratings among men 18 to 34, according to the network, and it ranked No. 1 in the hour among that demo on 48 nights.
The English-language version has become one of most talked-about shows of the fall season. It was originally seen as a strip ABC could run nightly in the summer, but positive feedback encouraged the network to rework it as a weekly one-hour dramatic comedy, first slated for Fridays. It was then moved to the crucial Thursday night 8 p.m. slot as a lead-in to “Grey’s Anatomy” after critics responded favorably to the pilot at the press tour.