The English-language networks hope so. They are embracing the format despite little evidence that it will work in English.
Fernando Espuelas, a young Latino-American entrepreneur, is working hard in Los Angeles to launch a production company—named Voy!, meaning “we go”—aimed at producing programming for English-speaking Latinos like himself.
So far, it’s been a hard road for Espuelas, 38, who once launched and ran an online company in Latin America, only to see it crash and burn when the dotcom bubble burst. While he’s seen some interest in some projects, such as a Latino-focused syndicated talk show hosted by himself, he’s yet to get anything off the ground.
But it looks like that’s about the change. About a year and a half ago, Espuelas began pitching a new format to U.S. TV networks and studios: the English-language telenovela. At the time, executives looked at him strangely and said ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¹Ã…â€œCan you really do this in English?’ “It started to be a joke among us,” Espuela says. “We would say ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¹Ã…â€œyes, we have the technology. We can make these shows in English!'”
Today, Espuelas is working with a major TV studio (he won’t say which) to develop telenovelas for English-speaking Latinos. Maybe big media didn’t get it 18 months ago, but they do now.
Television has suddenly gone crazy for the telenovela, a soapy, sexy series that airs five nights a week for 13 weeks and has a beginning, middle and an end. They’ve been popular around the world, particularly in Latin countries, for decades, but they are just now hitting the U.S.
All the networks are now rushing to produce and schedule English-language telenovelas. Fox, of course, is taking the plunge in the biggest way, basing its new network—My Network TV—on two back-to-back telenovelas. If they work, they’ll stay. But if they don’t, they’ll quickly be replaced by reality and game shows.
The networks see the telenovela as a way to attract young English-speaking Hispanics—a demo that has been beyond their reach to date—as well as non-Hispanics.
For the big networks, the turnaround may have come early this year when Nielsen started including Spanish-language network Univision in the daily ratings releases. TV execs were regularly reminded that Univision often beats The WB and UPN nationwide. It also sometimes keeps pace with the big networks in the more Latino-leaning markets, including Los Angeles, New York and Miami.
“I think the networks were all looking at Univision’s numbers, which are astronomical, and saying ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¹Ã…â€œhow can they have a share that’s that high?’ ” says David Morse, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based research firm New American Dimensions. “We really are looking at a demographic revolution. The Hispanic market is changing right before our eyes and there’s no programming for that demographic.”
Fox and Twentieth like the fact that telenovelas can be produced far more cheaply than conventional network dramas. Twentieth is buying telenovelas from other countries and re-producing them in English. They also think the shows will be relatively inexpensive to promote since their affiliates will be running them in pattern and using canned promos.
But it’s not as easy as all that, says Ramon Escovar, senior executive vice president of network entertainment for Telemundo, the other major Spanish-language network.
“Part of the value of the novela is that it’s hot and people get hooked. So they almost create their own buzz and their own brand,” he says. “Still, novelas are very story-driven so you have to become very topical in your promotion to ensure the viewer knows that the story is continuing to evolve. If you don’t promote the novela properly, they begin to run in place.”
Even though all four of the major networks are sprinting to get novelas on the air, and they are hugely popular in some 200 countries, the big question remains: Will they work on English-language TV in the U.S.?
“I just don’t know to what extent the success of Spanish-language telenovelas in the U.S. market is due to the format and how much is due to other factors,” such as the fact that there’s no other programming for U.S. Hispanics, says Morse. “Univision is doing the right thing, but there’s no TV in English for Hispanics, so that’s all they have to watch.”
In TV, networks and their producers are quick to rush in with clones of the lastest hit genre or show. What’s odd about the sudden interest in the English-language telenovela is that there is no hit yet. They are all chasing an unproven idea.Trying English-language novelas is a risk, especially for Fox’s new network, but it’s better to take a leap with the prospect of gaining new audiences rather than relying on the same old formats and business models. The reality star is fading. It’s time for something new.