Beyond the telenovela

Beyond the telenovela

By Kevin Downey
June 2, 2015


As viewer expectations change thanks to gritty US dramas like Breaking Bad, Hispanic networks and studios are injecting more action into their programming. But does this spell the end for the traditional telenovela?

For now, Spanish- and Portuguese-language television around the world is still dominated by those five-days-a-week dramas like Televisa’s hit Mi Corazón es Tuyo, which on Univision in the US was averaging 3.3 million viewers earlier this year.

Mexico's Televisa partnered with Sony Pictures Television on Señorita Pólvora
Mexico’s Televisa partnered with Sony Pictures Television on Señorita Pólvora

These are Cinderella stories where a down-on-her-luck young woman falls hopelessly in love with an out-of-reach rich guy who, 120 or more episodes later, falls in love with her. For decades that formula has fuelled the worldwide explosion of Hispanic TV. In the US alone, Spanish-language TV drummed up US$5.9bn in ad revenue in the first three quarters of 2014 (up 28% year-on-year), according to ad-tracking firm Kantar Media. Yet Hispanic studios and TV networks around the globe are shaking up that lucrative formula, and with good reason.

Like many other broadcast sectors, they increasingly face their audience migrating to watch fast-paced dramas like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad on digital platforms, luring millions of Hispanic viewers away from watching telenovelas.

The Hispanic TV industry is reaching out to these viewers, who are often young and watching content in Spanish and other languages on digital platforms in short, binged bursts – none of which lends itself to traditional telenovelas that can run up to 300 episodes over many weeks.

“We want to offer the entire Hispanic audience different stories,” says Andres Mendoza, VP of Univision’s UniMás Network, which in 2010 aired the first season of Fox Telecolombia’s action drama El Capo and last year showed Spanish-language Breaking Bad remake Metástasis. “On Univision, we have traditional telenovelas; here, we are capturing a more male audience. On average, these series have a 57% male audience, whereas traditional telenovela audiences are 60% female. And, on average, viewers of our 21.00 and 22.00 series are 35 years old.”

These newer shows are action-oriented, often violent programmes that air Monday to Friday for a few weeks, coming back for another season if they’re successful. Some execs call these modern dramas teleseries, super series, alternative series or just series.

Compared with telenovelas, the series are fast-paced and comprise roughly half as many episodes. The storylines veer pretty far from Cinderella territory and straight into drug cartels where crime, murder and women throwing punches are par for the course.

In 2009, Fox Telecolombia’s El Capo, on Colombia’s RCN, jumpstarted this trend with a story about a drug cartel, starring Marlon Moreno as fictional drug lord Pedro Pablo León Jaramillo. Its third season debuted on RCN last summer at number one in the country with a 10.8 rating, according to Estereofonica.

El Capo has recently been airing in the US on MundoFox, the joint-venture channel between Fox International Channels and RCN. In fact, in 2012, the second season of El Capo aired on MundoFox before it aired on RCN. MundoFox also aired its third season.

Luis Silberwasser
Luis Silberwasser

“We have done this since we launched in 2012,” Oswald Mendez, executive VP and chief marketing officer at MundoFox, says of this approach. “We did it very purposefully with El Capo, which is the first Spanish-language series in the US market to go into a second and a third season. We did that to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.”

MundoFox has set aside its 21.00 timeslot for what it calls series. These have included La Mariposa, about a female money launderer; and El Mariachi, inspired by the 1992 Robert Rodriguez movie.

“Right now, we have a whodunit, ¿Quién Mató a Patricia Soler?, about a woman who is falsely accused of murder and goes to jail,” says Mendez. “She gets out and fights to regain her life and family, but she also wants to unmask the real killer.”

March, meanwhile, saw the premiere of El Capitan Camacho, the true story of a man who fought for immigration rights in the United States. “He was a pioneer in radio and opened one of the biggest animal sanctuaries in Mexico,” adds Mendez.

Other networks are also at the forefront of this trend. In the US, UniMás has been airing Televisa and Caracol coproduction Tiro de Gracia at 21.00 since January. The show stars Robinson Diaz in dual roles as a drug lord and a theatre actor. At 22.00, UniMás shows the Televisa and RTI copro La Esquina del Diablo, about a policewoman tracking down a drug kingpin.

“Previously we only had one ‘alternative’ series at a time, at 22.00,” says Mendoza, “but with the success we’ve seen, last year we added a second timeslot at 21.00.”

Mexico-based Televisa has also been working on new kinds of drama, partnering with Sony Pictures Television (SPT) on shows like Señorita Pólvora and the upcoming El Dandy, based on mobster movie Donnie Brasco. Last year the companies signed a five-year, 12-series deal to coproduce teleseries.

Mauricio Bailon
Mauricio Bailon

“The telenovela format – inspirational stories – is not that appealing in developed countries,” says Mauricio Bailón, general director of new business at Televisa. “The teleseries drive is an effort to capture a different, more male audience as well as young people who are not always watching on a TV. We are seizing that opportunity with different channels. In Mexico, we have Channel 5 to capture this different audience.

“Viewers are looking for real-life themes, like action, drug trafficking and fights. Less filming takes place indoors, with exterior shots making up about 70% of the action. The shows are edgy, with unpredictable stories.”

Sony also works on teleseries with Colombia’s RCN. “In Colombia, we are producing Lady, La Vendedora de Rosas, the true story of a girl who finds fame when she’s cast in a movie that goes to Cannes,” says Alexander Marin, senior VP of distribution for Latin America and the US Hispanic market at SPT. “When she comes back, she is catapulted into the stratosphere of fame but she still works as a flower girl. Ultimately, she ends up in prison. In real life, she was released while the show was in production.”

Another Sony teleseries, Anónima, is “about a woman named Victoria who has just come back into the world after spending 10 years in prison,” says Marin. “An old friend asks Victoria to watch her son for a few days but, in a tragic turn of events, she inherits him and is forced to return to a life of crime to ensure they both survive.”

In the US earlier this year, Telemundo aired Duenos del Paraiso (pictured top), with Kate del Castillo starring as the widow of a Mexican drug lord. In 2011, del Castillo starred in Telemundo’s most successful super series, La Reina del Sur. That show averaged just over three million viewers each episode.

“We are not the largest Spanish-language network,” says Telemundo Network president Luis Silberwasser. “We are the competitor, so we have to offer viewers an alternative; something that can bring Hispanic viewers from the number-one network to us.

“The Hispanic viewer is now more established in the US. We have seen that they want more action than the melodrama of telenovelas. We created something with the romantic elements and family drama of telenovelas in a setting that is more action-oriented, with storylines that are grittier, edgier and borrowed from the headlines.”

El Señor de los Cielos is among several shows set in the world of drug cartels
El Señor de los Cielos is among several shows set in the world of drug cartels

In January, Telemundo’s Señora Acero wrapped with 2.7 million people tuning in for its finale. Prior to that, the last episode of El Señor de los Cielos’s second run attracted almost 3.2 million people.

“We are going to follow up El Señor de los Cielos with season three,” says Silberwasser. “That’s part of the appeal of super series. Like with American series, a successful show will be brought back for another season.”

In 2014, Cisneros’s Venevision Productions formed an alliance with Colombian producer Cristina Palacio of Shine Latino to create Teleseries. Shows spawned from the deal include DeMente Criminal, about a murderous psychiatrist. It aired on networks such as Venevision in Venezuela and UniMás in the US.

Azteca in Mexico, meanwhile, is also experimenting with new drama formats. “Right now in India, Lo Que Callamos las Mujeres is a single-series drama,” says Marcel Vinay Hill, VP of international sales at the Grupo Salinas-owned channel. “Every episode is self-contained.”

He continues: “In Mexico, we’re remaking the Spanish show Gran Reserva. We’re also in the process of doing another action miniseries like La Teniente, with a large cast and a big production, which was very successful in Mexico and around the world.”

And at Brazil’s Globo, which produces telenovelas and teleseries in addition to comedies and reality shows, the teleseries style is affecting the look, feel and pacing of more traditional telenovelas.

“On La Fiesta (The Party), for example, a body is found floating in a pool during a party,” says a Globo spokesperson. “The entire story occurs over a 24-hour period. It’s now available to the international market as a miniseries with 20 episodes. Another example is Doomed, which stars Cauã Reymond, who played Jorginho in Brazil Avenue. About 70% of the miniseries’ scenes were shot on location in northeast Brazil over a period of three months.”

La Fiesta centres on the discovery of a body in a pool during a party
La Fiesta centres on the discovery of a body in a pool during a party

Still, despite the relative newness of teleseries and their impact on telenovelas, the genre is already branching out into subgenres. Put simply, the next-generation teleseries has less drugs and violence than the current incarnation, while adding in more love stories.

“The genre started out very much in the drug cartel world with El Capo and El Señor de los Cielos,” says MundoFox’s Mendez. “It was a wave of drug lords. Now, the series is evolving to include a love component and suspense, and not necessarily so much violence.”

MundoFox show ¿Quién mató a Patricia Soler? is more mystery than gritty drama, Mendez adds. “There are certain advertisers who shy away from the cartel storylines – so the feeling at the network is that we’ll continue with series, but with more family-friendly storylines.”

In Colombia, where much of this trend began, viewers are already looking to move on to something lighter. “The US Hispanic market is happy with it, but in Colombia people are starting to get tired of it. It’s a challenge for us to find projects that are of interest to the three parties,” Televisa’s Bailón says of Mexico, Colombia and the US.

The origins of the series in large part reflect Hispanic viewers’ changing tastes. Those changes are coinciding with the increasing availability of hit dramas like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Netflix’s House of Cards.

Around Latin America, viewers are being exposed to more TV programming as penetration of cable TV, satellite TV and IPTV increases. Consultancy firm PwC forecasts that this penetration will grow at an annual compound growth rate of 6.3%, increasing from 55 million homes in 2013 to 74.6 million in 2018.

“We are all watching shows like The Walking Dead and CSI,” says Azteca’s Hill. “They are very successful around the world. Now, we are working to put more emphasis on the quality of our productions. Everything is in HD, and our focus is on creating content for multiple platforms.”

Much of the strategy behind teleseries is to reach younger Hispanics with high-quality productions that retain a focus on Hispanic culture.

Colombian Breaking Bad remake Metástasis
Colombian Breaking Bad remake Metástasis

“The Hispanic millennial is basically like every other millennial,” says Dick Haynes, senior VP of research firm Frank N. Magid Associates. “They’re not saying they don’t like the telenovela. They do – but they want to change it to fit their tastes.”

Teleseries are also designed to reflect how young Hispanics watch content – which, like most viewers, includes binge-watching via streaming services such as Netflix.

In fact, US Hispanics between 18 and 34 years old watched 35 minutes of digital video every day in the second quarter of 2014, equal to all adults in that age range, according to Nielsen. That’s up from 21 minutes two years earlier.

Last year, New York-based Horowitz Research’s Focus Latino study found that 55% of US Hispanics watch at least some TV on a streaming service each week. Of those, 66% watch subscription VoD.

“What we’re seeing from our qualitative and quantitative data is that Hispanics who are multiplatform viewers are heavier multiplatform users than their general market counterparts,” says Adriana Waterston, senior VP of marketing and business development at Horowitz. “There’s a new, huge influx of content they have access to.”

Teleseries with fewer, faster-paced episodes lend themselves to binge-watching more than telenovelas. In November, Univision addressed this issue with Novelas Xpress, which are telenovelas it cuts down to about 15 hours each and streams online.

In the meantime, the business model for teleseries falls somewhere between the model used for traditional telenovelas and those used for US-style scripted series.

Teleseries typically cost about 35% more per episode to produce than telenovelas, estimates Televisa’s Bailón – and they also comprise about half as many episodes, so there are fewer opportunities to generate ad revenue.

TV studios are finding ways to offset those production costs while drumming up additional revenue. One way to lower costs is to produce multiple seasons of a show.

Each season brings down overhead expenses, as actors, sets and many of the other costs associated with ramping up production are already in place.

“We have been able to mitigate the extra investment,” says Telemundo’s Silberwasser. “We are not producing 120 episodes; it’s about 60 per season. But we can bring back these series for season two and season three. El Señor de los Cielos hasn’t been done in one season, but we have still produced 180 episodes.”

Coproductions are also being used to spread costs among multiple companies. Mexico-based Argos Television, for instance, has been producing some of Telemundo’s super series like El Señor de los Cielos and Señora Acero, while Televisa and RCN have each been working with Sony. “We have partners to help minimise the finances,” says Bailón.

Some teleseries are sold to streaming services or monetised with advertising on homegrown SVoD platforms. “We have our own catch-up video platform, MundoFox Videos,” says Mendez. “We also partner with Hulu and other streaming services.”

Univision’s UniMás, like other networks, airs original content that is spun off its teleseries on digital platforms. “For La Viuda Negra, we had a highly successful preview trailer,” says Mendoza. “Now, we are planning to have exclusive digital content for every show, whether it’s parallel storylines or alternative endings.”

Telemundo airs its super series on its own streaming sites with considerable success. Señora Acero, for example, was seen last season on Telemundo’s digital platforms by 1.2 million people – who in total streamed the show 8.3 million times, according to the broadcaster.

International sales for some teleseries have also been strong, helping to offset production costs with added revenue. “Telenovelas, in the long term, have the highest financial benefit,” says Dago Garcia, VP of production and content at Caracol TV. “But series bring viewers to the channel, and become an anchor for it.

“We are selling these series to a lot of countries in the international marketplace.”

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