Spanish-language TV has had a makeover. Today, it's sleeker, better marketed, and reaches a more diverse audience. Productions feature international casts with recognizable names and faces. Networks champion pan-Hispanic culture and traditions. The goal is to ease the cultural tensions for those who feel Spanish-language TV is inundated by Mexican imports and themes.
Telemundo's Pasion de Gavilanes, for example, features an Argentine, a Cuban, and a Venezuelan in leading roles. The story is set in an undetermined locale.
It's the dawn of a new era for the telenovelas, popular soaps that grab ratings and dominate the prime time Latin-TV schedule. More shows promoting cross-border appeal are likely this year, as is more original fare produced in the U.S.—from entertainment to news.
The cross-cultural impetus is due to co-production agreements that the two largest U.S. Latin networks—Univision and Telemundo—developed in the past few years with several Latin American telenovela
producers. Rejecting imported canned product, programmers want shows that reflect the Hispanic immigrant experience in the U.S.
Of course, with two-thirds of the U.S. Hispanic population of Mexican descent, the Mexican experience is admittedly strong. But to embrace Hispanics from other countries, from Cuba to Argentina, the productions boast international casts. And they keep stories and settings deliberately neutral.
So far, the network that has experimented most successfully with this new strategy is Miami-based Telemundo, which currently produces 75% of its prime time grid. The nation's second-largest Latin network considers its tailored approach a success. January 2004 ratings soared for its prime time block—the strongest they've been in years. With telenovelas
like El Alma Herida
and Amor Descarado—whose main characters are Mexican immigrants with ties on both sides of the border—the network saw total viewership increase 81% over the same month last year, according to the Nielsen Hispanic Television Index.
Telemundo's recently premiered Prisionera—another telenovela
whose main characters are Mexican immigrants—garnered a 7.3 rating on its debut night, an increase of 120% for the time slot from March 2003. It was the second most successful debut in Telemundo's history.
Despite the ratings, Telemundo's execs say they are not pandering to any particular group but tapping an emerging market: Latinos who can't relate to stories set in Latin America. Telenovelas
imported from Latin America reflecting that culture won't appear on Telemundo, says CEO Jim McNamara. "They become irrelevant to the majority of the Latinos living in the United States." Telemundo is relying on new shows to capture the U.S. market. It's a calculated gamble.
After all, Mexican immigrants make up a huge part of the viewing audience. Loyal viewers, they remain faithful to the shows of their homeland, which they watch in staggering numbers on Univision. That network's leading supplier, Televisa, produces telenovelas
that, on a bad day, are among the top five most-watched Spanish-language shows in the U.S. While some are of dubious quality—like the recently concluded Velo de Novia—these productions command 80% of the Univision share.
Earlier this year, Univision unsuccessfully attempted to produce a local telenovela. But after a few weeks in prime time, sluggish ratings bumped Te Amaré en Silencio—produced by Paloma Productions, an independent Los Angeles company owned by Univision Chairman and CEO A. Jerrold Perenchio—to the daytime schedule. Univision got the message.
Thus, it's not likely to stray from its current strategy: relying on long-term programming supply agreements with Televisa (which run through 2017) and Venezuela's Venevision and RCTV. However, both Televisa and Venevision have shown interest in the Spanish-language TV developing here.
Indeed, just weeks ago, Televisa Chairman Emilio Azcárraga Jean began setting up corporate operations in Miami. The Mexican network currently supplies 75% of the Univision lineup, including the two most watched shows on Spanish-language TV, Mariana de la Noche
and Bajo la Misma Piel.
It also announced on March 2 that it's rolling out its home-entertainment label in the U.S. with current film titles from Televisa Cine division based on Televisa TV programs. Its first telenovela
produced entirely in the U.S., Amándote, is expected later this year.
Another trend for 2004 is free agents. In the past, viewers could identify networks by which actors were on TV. But the days of exclusive contracts, when a network owns the talent, are history. Now viewers can see the same actor or actress in rosters of competing telenovelas. For instance, Alejandro Camacho, one of Mexico's most talented and experienced telenovela
actors, can be seen at 9 p.m. on both Univision's Bajo la Misma Piel
and Telemundo's El Alma Herida.
The leading actress of Telemundo's recently concluded Amor Descarado, Bárbara Mori, stars in Televisa production Rubí, which should eventually air on Univision. It's rumored that another Televisa leading man, Argentine Saúl Lizaso, will join the cast of an upcoming Telemundo telenovela.
Programs also are enjoying fluidity of movement.
In the past, most telenovelas
were imported from Latin America. Increasingly, the tide has changed. Now Latin America cannot get enough of U.S.-produced shows, which are achieving even larger rating success abroad.
Pasion de Gavilanes, which garners average ratings in the U.S., is currently Colombia's most watched prime time show, commanding a larger audience share than Colombian phenomenon Betty la Fea. (Similarly, Latin TV stars are going mainstream. Univision's Cristina Saralegui has been a regular on CBS's Hollywood Squares
and ABC's The George Lopez Show. Telemundo's Maria Celeste has appeared on Today.)
Clearly, the crossover appeal of Hispanic TV impacts the ad market. According to CMR, it topped $2.2. billion in 2003. In addition to U.S. advertisers, there's a new player: Mexican companies have increased ad sales, says Telemundo Senior Vice President of Sales Enrique Perez.
"They are eager to capitalize," he says, "on the ever-expanding U.S. Hispanic market."