Hot In Any Language

Will a new batch of hispanic-origin soaps play in the U.S.? Stay tuned

As a long, passionate embrace plays out on the set of Desire: Table for Three, a 13-week love-triangle drama based on a popular imported Colombian telenovela, Twentieth Television Programming President Paul Buccieri pauses to stare. He is concerned as much by the cinematic impact of the single-camera lighting as by the couple’s lip-locking techniques. Satisfied, he quickly moves on because other scenes for the show, in production since March for My Network TV, are simultaneously under way on the 11-acre Kirkwood Studios lot and at locations throughout San Diego.

The recently crowned programming ringmaster has been orchestrating a complex, unprecedented logistical enterprise to produce the entire two-hour nightly prime time slate for the mini-network, which launches Sept. 5 with a pair of Monday-Friday limited-run dramas.

My Network TV’s programming is based on a popular and age-old programming form involving good-versus-evil tales about star-crossed lovers, one poor, the other rich, who must overcome a series of obstacles—and then live happily ever after. Former Telemundo President Jim McNamara calls telenovelas “part of the genetic DNA of the public, an absolute tradition” throughout Latin America, and now a mainstay in many international territories, such as Russia.

The novel for television could soon become an American TV staple, too, with ABC, CBS and NBC actively developing projects after years of discussions. Perhaps finally motivated by the success of Desperate Housewives and by My Network TV’s huge commitment, the networks have finally pounced on a decades-old phenomenon that has been right under their nose: Spanish-language telenovelas grab millions of viewers each night on Univision and Telemundo, often providing ratings surpassing those of The WB and UPN.

Yet serious questions remain about whether the inexpensive programming format—based on themes derived from Romeo & Juliet, The Bodyguard and, of course, Cinderella—will resonate with a more cynical domestic audience.

Twentieth is targeting adults 18-49, not just younger U.S. Hispanics, with the concept that will lead My Network TV out of the gate. The other networks had initially eyed premieres this summer, but they have now postponed them to focus on cost issues. My Network TV has issues of its own, one of them being that it is starting on the same day as rival upstart The CW. The new format must quickly hook viewers while all the networks are out heavily promoting their fall lineups.

Acting as the de facto executive producer, Buccieri began shooting Desire in March and will start on the U.S. version of Cuba’s Secret Obsessions: Fashion House, starring Bo Derek—who headlined the movie 10 in 1979—at the end of May. He has to wrap My Network TV’s debut productions by midsummer so he can begin shooting Watch Over Me, the third of eight novelas planned for next season. They appear in four 13-week arcs, although that strategy could change if one—or more—fails to work.

Even more challenging, Buccieri is operating on a shoestring production budget, earlier estimated at $500,000-$600,000 a week, or $100,000-120,000 per episode. Twentieth Television President/COO Bob Cook won’t discuss budgets but believes it is possible to turn out “quality productions” using “economies of scale.”

Twentieth had already greenlighted 65 episodes of Desire, translated from the telenovela Mesa Para Tres, for the syndication market. Then Buccieri went to the San Diego studio owned by producer Stu Segal (Silk Stalkings), renowned for his scores of successful, lower-cost programs.

Assembled Like A Giant Jigsaw Puzzle

With three crews per show exclusively dedicated to certain storylines, the scenes for Twentieth’s series are assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle. In the case of Desire, there are three directors, 50 cast members, 200 bit players, 2,000 extras and 2,800 script pages (versus 120 pages for features and 45 for dramas), culled down from 120 to 65 episodes, with subplots removed in favor of the main character arcs.

“We’re doing three seasons in one,” Bucciari says, so speed is of the essence. In the first week of shooting, the crew gave a pedometer to the director of photography, who was running between stages. He logged four miles.

Borrowing and adding to the cost-saving shooting techniques from Latin America and India, Twentieth is compiling a production “bible” for the future. It has built 53 shared living-room sets to avoid time-eating setups, allowing for fast changes from one drama to the next. The crew changes colors and repositions camera angles to give the sets a different look, Cook says.

To provide production values, Buccieri is shooting in high-def and adding plenty of explosions and other sexy elements to attract men as well as women. He’s also using single-camera lighting, which gives the shows a more expensive prime time drama or cinematic feel, distinguishing them from the multi-camera, heavily lit daytime soaps. Buccieri even hired Alex Wright as the chief director because of his independent-film background.

“It’s like shooting a 50-hour feature film,” says Wright, who compares the logistics to Lord of the Rings’ filming three movies at once.

While many of its cost-cutting strategies are kept under wraps, some are obvious. Twentieth has designated the scribes as non-union “adapters” rather than “writers.” Twentieth argues that, since their work involves translating previously completed scripts and making only minor changes—such as changing the locale of a restaurant from Colombia to New Jersey—they should not be covered by the Writers Guild.

But Twentieth has agreed to union deals for actors with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, directors with the Directors Guild of America, and other crew members with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The deals are believed to have had a substantial impact on the production budget.

Also, My Network TV has aligned with many former affiliates of UPN, which lost $50 million-$60 million annually and posted a prime time rating of less than 1.5. So prospects for first-year profitability appear slim. If the new mini-network, offering affiliates an advantageous 9:5 advertising split, achieves decent CPMs (costs per thousand), analysts estimate My Network TV could fetch $60 million-$90 million in revenues its first year.

That could make it tough for Twentieth to recover the nearly $60 million or more in annual program costs, plus the huge outlay needed for marketing and promotion. The telenovelas have little backend value from the domestic rerun market, but Twentieth, which itself pays format rights-holders in Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Portugal, Colombia and Venezuela, is in discussions with Fox’s international wing about potential overseas sales of its versions.

Sales to other platforms, such as iPods, are out for now. Cook notes the My Network TV affiliate contracts prohibit cable and other repurposing in the first year. Afterward, “a lot depends on if there is a need for exposure,” he says, adding, “We want the network to be a success, and we’re not going to do anything if it endangers our relationships with affiliates.”

If My Network TV’s risky approach works, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch will have once again proved the naysayers wrong. And there are plenty of naysayers.

“I’m a huge fan of the genre,” says a producer of daytime soaps, who asked not to be identified, “but I just hope they don’t scorch the earth in front of us.”

Some also question the strategy of ABC, CBS and NBC, which remain enthusiastic about the genre as they search for economical business models.

Ugly Betty May Strip

ABC wanted a five-day-a-week summer version of Touchstone’s Ugly Betty adaptation of Colombian tele­novela Betty la Fea but then ordered it as a weekly hour drama pilot for fall. Now the network holds out the hope it might be transformed back to a strip in summer 2007 if it can find a business model.

Meanwhile, NBC Universal, looking to its own Spanish-language network Telemundo to supply formats for its broadcast and cable networks, won’t have its first project, Body of Desire from writer Julio Jimenez, ready to go any time soon. Nely Galán, president of Galan Entertainment, whose company in February signed a two-year, first-look deal with NBC U for production of telenovelas and other Spanish-language formats in English, says, “I don’t think we’ll make it for this summer. We’ve really been working hard, but we want to do it right.”

Galán, the entertainment president of Telemundo from 1998 to 2001, whose production firm has produced more than 600 episodes of multicultural programming, notes that scheduling decisions have been put on hold until after the upfronts.

The need for cost-efficiency stems from telenovelas’ usually airing multiple episodes each week. Barbara Bloom, senior VP of daytime for CBS Entertainment, who is spearheading the launch of original limited-run novelas twice a week, wants “a hybrid business model somewhere between daytime and prime time.”

Daytime soaps can range from $1 million-$2 million per week, or $200,000-$400,000 per episode (with license fees of $1 million-$1.6 million), according to network executives. Prime time dramas can cost as much as $3 million per episode. The bigger networks are said to be looking at $500,000 for the prime time limited-run dramas, at least until success drives the prices higher, as it did with top-tier reality programs.

McNamara, now chairman of Panamax Films in Coral Gables, Fla., a domestic producer of Latin-themed films, wonders what the lower-cost productions will look like. “So will people watch?” he asks. “They will forgive production values, because no one watches anything for production values. They want good characters and strong stories.”

Because telenovelas are considered to be more story- than character-driven, writing is essential. Salaries for daytime soap writers and executive producers are said to average $600,000-$700,000 annually, with top-tier showrunners earning $1.3 million-$1.5 million. One renowned writer makes an estimated $10 million. In comparison, Twentieth is believed to be paying its “stable of adapters,” who essentially translate the scripts and make minor changes, $50,000-$75,000 annually.

“You need adaptation, not straight translation,” says a daytime soap producer. “They are completely different animals. Certain things work in Mexico or Colombia that don’t work in the U.S. formats. These things can easily implode due to the cultural differences.”

But CBS’ Bloom points to “high-caliber” scripts she has commissioned from a group including theatrical and miniseries producer Denise DiNovi (Little Women, New York Minute, Edward Scissorhands); novelist Nicholas Sparks; and TV producers Jim and Diane Stanley, who were writers on Knots Landing.

While writers may make less money upfront, a high-ranking network exec sees a potential upside for them: “While it takes some people out of the game, others might jump at the chance” to be involved in a new medium that has the potential to grow with new platforms.

Another obstacle confronting networks: Unlike tele­novela viewers elsewhere, American audiences are drawn to strong prime time soap villains like Dallas’ J.R. Ewing, says McNamara. Twentieth’s Cook acknowledges concerns over viewers’ investing in a character who then is killed off. But he thinks viewers have been conditioned by American Idol, Survivor and, to some extent, 24 to see favorites disappear, so it is “acceptable” now. “These dramas work,” he says.

Concerns about American viewers do not faze Galán, who thinks people want love in their lives, no matter how cynical they are. She believes the wish-fulfillment of telenovelas, which often end with a big wedding, can overcome any cultural differences. “Everyone,” she says, “aspires for the best possible thing that can happen to them.”