The Latinization of U.S. culture will step into the living room this fall with the debut of two telenovelas in English.


Twentieth Television, a unit of News Corp., has already taped "Desire" in San Diego. Another show, "Secret Obsessions," goes before the cameras this month. For Twentieth TV and sister Fox Broadcasting, the shows represent a major gamble as debut programs for MyNetworkTV, the broadcast network set to launch Sept. 5.


Telenovelas, often called "Spanish soap operas," are the predominant form of primetime programming in much of Latin America. While they possess similarities to U.S.-style soaps dramatic and romantic tales with multiple, intertwining story lines they also have significant differences. For example, they run a finite number of episodes and end with all the story lines dramatically tying together.


"Desire" and "Secret Obsessions" will run 65 episodes each. In keeping with tradition, they will air five nights per week, Monday to Friday, with "Desire" at 8 p.m. and "Obsessions" at 9 p.m. A summary show of highlight scenes will air on Saturday.


"We view this as a mainstream program that will have mass appeal," said Les Eisner, vice president of media relations at Twentieth Television. "With that said, we aren't forgetting that the genesis of the telenovela format comes from Latin America. We're not looking at the first-generation (immigrants), but probably the second and third generations, who speak both languages and have an interest and familiarity with telenovelas."


Robert Rose, a pioneer in English-language TV for Hispanics and chief executive of AIM Tel-A-Vision Group in New York, said the concept is not such a hard sell, given that shows like "The Sopranos" and "Desperate Housewives" share many traits with the novela format. "Sight unseen, the format would seem to lend itself to attract second-generation Latinas who may have grown up watching novelas with their parents or grandparents, but have since turned to more English-language fare," Rose said.


The shows target the adult 18-49 demographic, and specifically, women aged 18-49. To reach that mainstream segment, the producers of "Obsessions" have signed film star Bo Derek to play Maria Zianni, a sophisticated but iron-fisted chief executive of a family-owned fashion company. At the same time, to reflect the show's Latin heritage, Maxim cover girl Natalie Martinez will play Michelle Miller, an unfulfilled wife who dreams of becoming a fashion designer.


To produce the shows, Twentieth acquired rights to adapt Spanish-language telenovelas. The production team translated the scripts to English, changed names and locations, and "Americanized its sensibilities," in Eisner's words. "Obsessions" is based on Miami-produced "Salir de Noche" (or "Out at Night") while "Desire" comes from "Mesa Para Tres" (or "Table for Three"), produced by Colombian broadcaster Caracol. As the name implies the story deals with a love triangle, in this case involving two brothers.


"We will keep the spirit of the telenovela: romance, high drama, action, emotional rollercoaster, lots of passion," Eisner explained. "We're not looking for over-the-top and over-reactive acting. We are asking the talent to make the acting as real as possible, rather than melodramatic."


Distribution plan
The two telenovelas underpin the launch of MyNetworkTV, a new broadcast network from Fox. MyNetworkTV developed as a by-product from the cancellation of the WB and UPN networks announced last year. In their place, Time Warner and Viacom (owners of the canceled networks, respectively) will create the CW Television Network, set to launch this fall. In the Los Angeles market, KTLA-TV (Channel 5) will become the CW affiliate.


The decision to consolidate two networks into one left some former UPN stations without a network home. Fox will attempt to fill that programming gap with MyNetworkTV. According to Eisner, MyNetworkTV currently has clearance in about 60 percent of the country, and the goal is 90 percent by the launch date. KCOP-TV (Channel 13) will become the new network's station in Los Angeles.


The long runs of traditional soap operas allow them to build audiences over time. Eisner said Twentieth conducted extensive research before forming its 13-week strategy, and responses indicated that people would be interested in a limited-run show. Again, the current TV marketplace, in which cable shows are often "stripped" (scheduled every weeknight), and some version of "CSI" or "Law & Order" airs practically every night, has acclimated the audience to back-to-back episode exposure.


Advertisers will get their first peek at the shows during an upfront presentation May 16 in New York. Twentieth Television will handle national advertising sales, with stations selling local spots. "We have an attractive inventory split for affiliates they get most of the air time," said Eisner.


Syndication surge
While Twentieth Television readies its shows for broadcast, other companies want to cash in on telenovela translation. ABC has announced plans for an English-language version of the hit "Betty La Fea" ("Ugly Betty"), originally produced by RCN in Colombia.


Likewise, NBC has a deal with Los Angeles-based Galan Entertainment to redevelop some telenovelas aired on Telemundo, the Spanish-language network that NBC acquired in 2002. "With this, we can better integrate our English and Spanish-speaking audiences," NBC Television Group chief executive Jeff Zucker said at the time.


The attention has helped other Hispanic-oriented programmers, such as Rose's AIM, which produces news magazine shows "LatiNation" and "American Latino TV" for syndication.


"Suddenly who knows for how long syndication became hot again," Rose explained. He added that in today's fragmented media market, a show doesn't need to become a top 10 show to make money.


That's particularly true in the global market, where telenovela giants such as Mexico's Televisa and Brazil's Globo sell their shows into more than 100 countries. "Novelas are very popular worldwide and are relatively inexpensive to produce, so if that can be replicated in the U.S. in English, I think there could be more to follow," Rose said. "With relatively low production costs, decent audience delivery and heavy advertiser interest, the format could spell the future of television with declining production costs making it more economically feasible to serve niche and targeted audiences."

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