Telenovelas Take Off on U.S. Networks
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
American television viewers can soon escape from the grim news of the world the same way that Latin Americans do. NPR's Nova Safo reports on New American telenoveles.
NOVA SAFO reporting:
One of the new heroines on network TV this fall is a homely and smart young woman who navigates the cutthroat fashion world, where outer beauty is coveted above all else.
(Soundbite from television broadcast of Ugly Betty)
BECKI NEWTON (Actress): (as Amanda) So everyone's in the conference room at Daniel's about to start his first staff meeting. I'm Amanda, by the way.
SAFO: Or as the show's title has it, Ugly Betty.
When the show premieres on ABC later this month, she'll join Betty clones from some 70 other countries, including Russia, India, and Germany: all adaptations of the original Yo soy Betty la fea, a Columbian telenovela that's been a global phenomenon.
The U.S. Betty has been changed to suit American tastes and formats. For one thing, it will be a weekly one-hour program, not a daily primetime soap. But for people who want to experience the real telenovela flavor, they'll get that chance starting tomorrow.
(Soundbite of television commercial)
Unidentified Announcer: (In television commercial) My Network TV is proud to present a new dramatic series. Desire.
SAFO: At a production facility in Los Angeles, editors are putting the final touches on the video sequence that will launch My Network TV, a small startup put out by Fox subsidiary Twentieth Television.
My Network TV will broadcast only two shows: English language adaptations of popular telenovelas. They'll run every weeknight for 13 weeks.
Mr. PAUL BUCCIERI (President of Programming, Twentieth Television): And that car crash, and that door slam, put it in...
SAFO: Paul Buccieri is looking over the shoulder of the show's lead editor. Buccieri is the president of programming at Twentieth Television. He says in producing the telenovelas, he's tried to maintain the feel of the Spanish language originals.
Mr. BUCCIERI: In terms of the pacing, the fun of it, the over-the-top nature of it, the speed of the storytelling, there are cliffhangers every night - we try to really hold true to the tent poles of what a novella is.
SAFO: Buccieri says the storylines have remained the same as the original Spanish language ones. Desire is about two brothers running from the mob and in love with the same woman. Fashion House, the other telenovela, is about the intrigues and scandals inside a fashion company.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actress): (Character in Fashion House) Well, you lost the one thing you've cared about the most in all this. You've lost Luke.
Unidentified Woman #3 (Actress): (Character in Fashion House) Oh, I lost nothing.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Character in Fashion House) Keep telling yourself that, Maria.
Unidentified Woman #3 (Actress): (Character in Fashion House) You think he'd choose you over me?
SAFO: Twentieth Television promises higher production values and a sleeker look for its shows. My Network TV has secured about $50 million in commercials so far. That's a modest sum for a broadcast network.
Advertisers are waiting to see ratings results, and so are other broadcasters. Ben Grossman is an associate editor at the trade magazine Broadcasting and Cable.
Mr. BEN GROSSMAN (Associate Editor, Broadcasting and Cable magazine): At the beginning of this year, everybody was talking about telenovelas. Every network was going to make them. They were going to be on multiple times per week. Low production costs, hopefully big viewers. Saucy storylines. It was going to be the next thing.
SAFO: But Grossman says the networks got skittish about veering away from the weekly format. They also couldn't figure out how to keep production costs down. That hasn't deterred Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television.
Mr. BOB COOK (President and CEO, Twentieth Television): We've come up with a formula of production which allows us to put an extraordinary amount of quality on the screen for a very reasonable price. And these are technologies and strategies acquired from Bollywood, from Latin America, and that have now served us quite well.
SAFO: For example, unlike regular TV shows, My Network TV shot all its episodes at once, reducing expenses through economies of scale. A weeks' worth of its telenovelas reportedly cost the same as one episode of a regular network drama. With those kinds of savings, My Network TV executives say they are willing to be patient with ratings, allowing English speaking audiences to find and get hooked on their telenovelas.
Nova Safo, NPR News, Los Angeles.