Telemundo Pins Hopes in Telenovelas

Carrie Kahn reports on how Spanish-language television network Telemundo is refreshing its slate of prime-time soap operas, called telenovelas, in hopes of climbing out of its perennial second-place standing with rival network Univision.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Are you tired of summer repeats and rehashed reality shows already? Well, here's an idea. Try switching over to Spanish-language television. Even if you can't follow everything that's happening there, it's getting interesting. As the country's two major Spanish-language networks battle for ratings, mostly with various versions of telenovelas; these are soap operas. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports the perennial second-place network, Telemundo, is doing OK.

(Soundbite of Spanish-language programming)

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

From its debut, Telemundo's highly hyped telenovela, "El Cuerpo del Deseo," has been full of skin and sin.

(Soundbite of Spanish-language programming)

KAHN: "Body of Desire" centers around the silver-haired patriarch Pedro Jose Donoso, who in the first episode marries a buxom diva more than half his age. By episode nine he dies, and is reincarnated. Pedro quickly lands in the body of a well-toned peasant with flowing curls who never seems to be able to find a shirt and is either running and/or sweating through most scenes.

Telemundo hopes "El Cuerpo del Deseo" will give it a much-needed boost in the ratings. Its rival, Univision, has long held on to first place with a monopoly on tried and true soaps bought from Mexico. But now, Telemundo execs say they can mount a challenge with Spanish-language soaps made in the USA, slickly produced with tailored plots for the US Hispanic market. Telemundo's parent company, NBC, agrees and is bankrolling the network's production at its new Miami studios.

Unidentified Director: (Spanish spoken) Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, action.

KAHN: This year Telemundo has eight shows in the pipeline. Mimi Belt, vice president of artistic development, says with that much production, she needs lots of good writers who get the genre.

Ms. MIMI BELT (Telemundo): It's very different than the soap, because the soap opera is character-driven. You know, why do soap operas last 30 years on air? Because you're following the exploits of Luke and Laura or Erica Kane or whoever your character is because it's always about the character; it's not really about the story.

KAHN: So Telemundo teamed up with Miami-Dade College to, in effect, grow their own writers. They launched the first telenovela school and received more than 4,000 applications. Only 16 made it into this year's inaugural class.

Professor FERNANDO CALZADILLA (Miami-Dade College): (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: In a large classroom at Miami-Dade College's Hialeah campus, Professor Fernando Calzadilla gives his students a brief history on feminism, not your typical telenovela theme.

Prof. CALZADILLA: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Calzadilla tells the students that ratings prove that US viewers prefer stories with strong female characters. While Telemundo encourages the telenovela's modernization, the network doesn't want its writers in training to stray too far. The plots, after all, must be love stories, and the couples must over come impossible odds and live happily ever after. Student Philippe Silva(ph) says the format is rigid, but the 25-year-old from Los Angeles says he can still write creative scripts.

Mr. PHILIPPE SILVA (Student): The meaty stories are in the (Spanish spoken) subplots, sideplots--like the extra--the family of the people that are in love.

KAHN: Fellow student Katalina Walsh(ph) from Houston agrees.

Ms. KATALINA WALSH (Student): I think you can make really good love stories, but the context is very important.

KAHN: Walsh is working on a period love story set at the battle of the Alamo. Silva's lovers are caught in the cross-fire of rival drug-trafficking families. He also has a plot featuring a peasant girl who drives a big-city taxi and finds true love in the arms of her rich customer. Syndicated Spanish-language TV critic Magaly Morales applauds Telemundo's initiative and the network's high-end production values. But she says it's still struggling with a formula that will get the majority of the Hispanic TV viewers, those from Mexico, to switch channels.

Ms. MAGALY MORALES (Critic): You know, I think that maybe Telemundo should realize that they cannot compete with the monster that Univision is, and so they would just do what they do best, produce really good telenovelas.

(Soundbite of Spanish-language programming)

KAHN: Whether or not Telemundo succeeds depends on Mexican-born viewers like Claudia Gonzales of Los Angeles. With the TV blaring over her kitchen table, Gonzales says she's been channel surfing lately. Her Univision story has gotten a little stale.

Ms. CLAUDIA GONZALES (Viewer): (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Lately, she's been giving Telemundo's nightly lineup a try. I told her about the three plots the writing students in Miami were working on. Gonzales says she'd tune into the tale of the poor girl who finds love and riches as a taxi driver.

Ms. GONZALES: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: She says it just sounds more realistic. Whether that tale or any of the others make it to the small screen is not certain. First, the Miami students have to finish Telemundo's 10-month course and then wait to see if their dream story of landing a network writing job has a happy ending. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: Thank you, Carrie.

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