Sunday, December 24, 2006

The New York Times
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December 25, 2006

Sizzling a Year Ago, but Now Pfffft ...

The telenovela, the steamy low-budget soap opera genre that has become the staple of television programming in Spanish-speaking countries, lives on its sudden bursts of uncontrollable — and loudly acted — passion.

Maybe that was what was burning in the hearts of network executives in New York about this time last year when, seemingly out of the blue, many of them announced a rush to begin developing a new form of programming for the summer: the American telenovela.

“It’s right to characterize what we were all caught up in last year as telenovela fever,” said Katherine Pope, the executive vice president of NBC Entertainment.

The ardor has apparently cooled. In the 12 months since news reports revealed that CBS was working on as many as seven scripts for telenovelas, that ABC had invested in as many as 45 existing telenovela storylines, and NBC was jumping in to adapt telenovelas already produced by Telemundo, the Spanish-language network that NBC owns, not much more has been said — or done. Not a single telenovela project has been put into production by any of those networks.

The networks’ intense interest in the telenovela genre was sparked by the need to find alternative, inexpensive programming in the summer to replace the round of repeats. Telenovelas are made cheaply in Spanish-speaking countries, for only a fraction of the $2 million to $3 million an episode that network dramas cost.

Once into development, however, financial realities began to set in. The networks discovered they would only alienate their viewers if they tried to make the shows of distinctly lesser quality than their regular shows. They also discovered that the production schedules required to grind out so many episodes in such a short time would be daunting. Most telenovelas shoot as many as 40 pages of script in a day; the conventional network drama seldom does more than about 15 (each page equals about one minute of screen time).

“The economics still have to be figured out,” Ms. Pope conceded.

ABC, has of course, added a new hit prime-time series called “Ugly Betty,” which is based on one of the most popular telenovelas ever produced. But nobody, certainly not its executive producer, Ben Silverman, considers the American “Betty” a true telenovela as the genre is commonly understood — that is, a stylized short-run series with a definitive ending, about 13 weeks long, broadcast in several episodes a week.

“We originally conceived the show as a true telenovela,” Mr. Silverman said, “but it got shifted by ABC to a regular hourlong drama series.” He added that the expensive look of the “Betty” series, which is set in the glamorous world of New York couture magazines, could never have been fashioned on the budget of a real telenovela.

“We could never have shot in New York,” Mr. Silverman said. “We could never have gotten a star like America Ferrara,” he added, referring to the actress in the title role.

Though versions of “Ugly Betty” have played as straight telenovelas around the world, in countries as far flung as Germany, India and Israel, the ABC adaptation is a regular highly produced, episodic network series.

If you want to see what an American version of a telenovela looks like, you would have to have tuned in this fall to one of the stations on the mini-network called MyNetworkTV (MNT), a collection of television stations (including Channel 9 in New York), mainly owned by the News Corporation. The stations were orphaned last winter when their old network, UPN, combined with its competitor, the WB, to form the CW network.

Not that many people have tuned in. MNT has so far tried four telenovelas, including one, “Fashion House,” starring the former sirens Bo Derek and Morgan Fairchild (complete with catfight between them), and another, the current “Wicked Wicked Games,” starring Tatum O’Neal.

Running two episodes at a time five nights a week, the network has thus far made little noise with any of its telenovelas. Ratings for MNT’s telenovelas in the 18- to 49-year-old audience, the primary market for most broadcasters, have been negligible. They have been scoring about half a national rating point — or less — which translates to about 650,000 viewers in that group (compared with 8 million to 10 million viewers for a hit show in the same period).

“Obviously we’re not pleased with the ratings,” said Paul Buccieri, senior vice president of Twentieth Television, the production studio that supplies programming to MNT. (The studio is mainly the syndication arm for the Fox Broadcasting Company.) But Mr. Buccieri emphasized that the ratings have not diminished that network’s conviction that telenovelas would work with American audiences.

“We’re still definitely enthusiastic about the genre,” he said.

MNT’s experience has contributed to the slackening of interest among the big networks. Program executives at one network confirmed that the low ratings for MNT’s telenovelas put a chill on their own plans. Mr. Buccieri said that MyNetworkTV has learned many lessons in trying to make the form work, including adding cost-saving techniques like hand-held cameras. MNT has two more telenovelas in production to fill the gap when the current ones leave off.

Longer term, there are questions about whether the network can stay committed to giving up all its prime-time hours to the genre if the ratings do not improve. Reality shows and game shows would be considerably cheaper.

Still, if MNT connects on even one telenovela, it may reinvigorate the passion for them among the major networks.

Executives at ABC, CBS and NBC all said they still have some telenovela projects in development. Mr. Silverman, who continues to option rights to telenovelas made in Latin America, remains a firm believer. “I think someone should give it a shot,” he said.

Ms. Pope said NBC would almost surely stay in the telenovela game, for several reasons, beginning with its association with Telemundo. NBC owns the rights to all the telenovelas that play on that network (and that is almost the only kind of programming Telemundo does). If NBC did commit to a telenovela, it would shoot it in Miami, where Telemundo is based, finding economies by using that network’s studio and sets.

And then there is the interest of Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of NBC Universal Television. Ms. Pope said, “I personally believe we will definitely make a telenovela. Jeff grew up in Miami, he’s seen the form and he’s very dedicated to it.”

She added that many advertisers have also expressed interest in the genre and had indicated a willingness to sponsor a telenovela if a network decided to produce one.

“Ultimately, we are the best-positioned network to get one done quickly,” Ms. Pope said.

But not very quickly. “I’m not sure when you’ll see one,” she said. “It’s really unlikely anyone will make one as soon as next summer.”