It's Not a Novela, It's NBC

English-language networks develop a Latin touch

On NBC's Passions this week, Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald, played by Spanish-French hearthrob Galen Gering, plans to be married in Mexico. Among those in attendance will be Tia Lola, an old friend of the Lopez-Fitzgerald family, portrayed by guest star Rebecca Jones, who, despite her name, is a popular Latina actress well-known for her work on Hispanic-network telenovelas.

And don't be surprised that she's on NBC. It's not that daytime English-language soap operas are squeezing out Univision or Telemundo. But increasingly, Anglo soaps have developed a definite Latin touch.

For example, on ABC's One Life To Live, the Santi family will continue making itself known throughout the fictional (and strangely spelled) city of Llanview. They're new in town, but their ties run deep: Adriana is the illegitimate daughter of late mob boss Manuel Santi and Llanview society matron Dorian Lord, while Tico is a cousin to local detective Antonio Vega.

Hispanic characters have been seen on every soap opera since the early '90s, when members of the Santos family turned up on ABC's All My Children and Ricky Martin began a stint as a singing orderly on the network's General Hospital. (The Santoses of AMC
incidentally, should not be confused with the Santoses of CBS's Guiding Light. The latter have been integral to their show's stories since the late '90s.) But Passions
and One Life To Live currently feature the most primary Latino characters. Indeed, Passions has since its inception in 1999 included the Lopez-Fitzgeralds as one of its three core families. Laudably, the Lopez-Fitzgeralds do not have criminal ties (unlike both the Santis on One Life To Live and the Santoses on Guiding Light).

"The people who create daytime dramas are waking up to the fact that the Latino population is America's No. 1 minority group and is growing," says Sheraton Kalouria, senior vice president of daytime programs at NBC. "The growing representation of Hispanics in daytime drama reflects modern demographic realities, rather than an attempt by English-language programmers to attract Spanish-language viewers."

As ever, youth is important: Kalouria notes that the median age of the U.S. Hispanic population is 34, a full 10 years younger than the non-Hispanic population.

"The Holy Grail is the growing and sizeable bilingual audience that is perhaps familiar with and grew up with telenovelas," Kalouria says. In NBC's case, of course, it helps that the network owns the telenovela-laden Telemundo and can easily bring stars of that network's shows over to Passsions and other NBC programs, as well.

In fact, Kalouria oversees an annual fan festival in Los Angeles that features stars from NBC's two soaps, Days of Our Lives and Passions, as well as actors from programs on Telemundo, all brought together for one celebration.

Curiously, the daytime drama that for the past year has ranked No. 1 in Hispanic households and among Hispanic women 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 is Days of Our Lives, which features no Hispanic characters or actors. Days is tied with General Hospital and One Life To Live
for first place among total Hispanic viewers. Passions is second among Hispanic women 18-34, 18-49 and 24-54. General Hospital is No. 2 in Hispanic households.

Hispanic characters are not always portrayed by Hispanic actors. Neurotic heroine Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald on Passions is played by Lindsay Hartley; Theresa's brother Miguel was played by Jesse Metcalfe, who recently left the show. Neither actor is of Hispanic descent.

Conversely, Hispanic actors often portray non-Hispanic characters. Maurice Bernard, an actor of Nicaraguan descent and arguably the most popular male performer in daytime drama, plays a mobster of Greek heritage on General Hospital. Also on General Hospital, Natalia Livingston, an actress of Mexican descent, portrays Emily Quartermaine, the young daughter of the white Quartermaine family.