Steamy Spanish telenovelas have become a business as hot as the shows themselves, and entertainment guilds are trying harder to get a piece of the action.

Unlike American soap operas, the popular Spanish dramas have a finite run, drawing to a close after a set number of episodes, and the shows commonly use non-union talent, something the guilds are trying to change.

Spanish-language programming continues to increase in popularity as advertisers and producers try to leverage the billions of dollars in purchasing power wielded by the country's Hispanic market. Nielsen Media Research ratings for August show that in Los Angeles, Univision's Spanish-language KMEX (Channel 34) led the primetime demographic of 18-to-49-year-olds as well as total households, and the network's New York station won its market in primetime that month.

"It's very hard to miss the growth in Spanish-language production over the past few years," said Screen Actors Guild spokesman Seth Oster. "Our goal is to put all that work under a SAG contract, and we're very serious about it."

Efforts to bring Spanish performers into the union fold have intensified and English-language stations are now copying the popular telenovela format. Naturally, production is cheaper without union contracts in place because they require standardized wages, work hours, residual pay and benefits for performers.

Late last month, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists successfully unionized the TV series "Table for Three," produced for Twentieth Television, a division of News Corp.'s Fox Television Stations Inc. The 65-episode telenovela was shot in San Diego using non-union talent. Writer's Guild of America is in the process of negotiating with Twentieth Television to secure union writing jobs on the telenovelas.

AFTRA representatives said they hoped that their agreement with Twentieth, though for an English-language show, would set some precedent for similar Spanish production.

"(The agreement) is reflective of our awareness that the telenovela model of production is likely to increase whether in Spanish or English, and we need to make sure that we have the same standards and conditions for all domestically produced telenovelas," said Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, the union's national executive director.

There will be plenty of potential targets for the guilds' organizing efforts.

NBC Universal, Telemundo's parent company, announced early this month that it will adapt some of the Spanish network's soap operas for English-language viewers. The series will air on NBC and its cable networks Bravo and USA.

Headquartered in Miami, Telemundo produces about 10 shows a year in the right-to-work state.

Last month, News Corp. announced the September launch of My Network TV, which will air English versions of the Spanish daytime dramas. The network will run the content on affiliate stations it picked up in the wake of the UPN and WB network merger in December.

Telemundo began producing telenovelas in the United States in 2003, a move to chip away at the dominant market share held by perennial Spanish-language powerhouse Univision Communications Inc. An AFTRA organizing effort there has hit a wall, at least for the time being. After months of bargaining last year, Telemundo reps informed AFTRA in July they were ending negotiations for an agreement covering Spanish-language performers and entertainment programming in Los Angeles.

"We were at very different points of view and the talks broke off because we were too far apart in our points of view and philosophy," said Margaret Lazo, Telemundo's senior vice president of human resources.

Univision declined to comment on organizing efforts. In November, the network aired the Latin Grammy Awards show, which was produced under an AFTRA agreement. Univision's broadcast drew higher ratings than the previous year's, which aired on CBS.

Rolling on
Last year, SAG hired a full-time bilingual staffer to work on the guild's plan to reach out to the burgeoning Spanish segment of the U.S. entertainment industry.

The guild is accelerating its push to capture the sizable base of Spanish-language performers, Oster said, though he had no estimates on how many Spanish-language actors might qualify for membership. SAG presently represents more than 120,000 actors in 24 branches across the United States.

AFTRA is also making changes within the union to allocate more resources to its Spanish-language performers. The union now represents more than 70,000 professional performers, broadcasters, and recording artists in 32 local chapters throughout the country.

"We certainly know that Spanish language media is increasing in a big way and is an important part of the media and entertainment industry," AFTRA's Hedgpeth said. "Right now we're looking at our internal structure so we can have appropriate staff and resources to make sure Spanish language performers receive industry-standard terms and conditions just like their English-language counterparts."

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