Corporation invests millions in South American format that has proved a worldwide hit
Owen Gibson, media correspondent
Wednesday October 18, 2006
Now British broadcasters are looking to the telenovela as their secret weapon in the battle to boost ratings, with the BBC investing millions in its own prime-time version. The corporation is working with big-name writers on several ideas and has commissioned the playwright Jonathan Harvey to develop a telenovela project with Talkback Thames, the independent production company behind The Bill and The Apprentice.
Since first airing in Brazil, Cuba and Mexico more than 50 years ago, telenovelas have branched out beyond Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries as far afield as China, Russia and Malaysia, and the first US incarnation of the genre is proving a hit this autumn. The dividing line can be thin, but whereas soap operas are typically open ended, designed to run until ratings or fashion dictate they must bow out, telenovelas have a predetermined story outline, running for an average of six to eight months.
"We’re going to have a go at doing something in the telenovela mould," the BBC’s head of fiction, Jane Tranter, confirmed. "We will know how many episodes we will do from the start. It will have a beginning, middle and an end, but we’ll shoot each episode just a few days before."
In South America telenovelas are the main form of television drama and dominate the schedules with a wide range of themes and subject matter. In recent years some have become more gritty, bringing sociopolitical issues to a mass audience, while others remain pure romantic escapism, often set in the past or including musical numbers.
A classic example of the genre is the hugely popular Yo Soy Betty, La Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly), which originated in Colombia but has been sold to broadcasters in 70 countries around the world. Most recently the US version, Ugly Betty, has become the surprise hit of the autumn season for ABC, the American network that is also home to the series Lost and Desperate Housewives. The Hollywood actor Salma Hayek – who began her career in telenovelas in her native Mexico – is the executive producer of the US version, having acquired the rights to the series and overseen its adaptation. It tells the story of a frumpy secretary who clambers to the top of the fashion world through her wit, charm and intelligence.
In the US version she has to survive the slings and arrows of the bitchy New York fashion scene while working as the PA to the editor of fictional fashion bible Mode. A subplot concerns the fate of the previous editor Fey Sommers, killed in a suspicious hit-and-run accident.
Ugly Betty is already pulling in more than 16 million viewers for ABC and delivering its best drama debut since 1995. News Corp’s new TV channel MyNetworkTV plans to have at least two telenovelas as a key plank of its schedule.
Many telenovelas, particularly those from Spanish-speaking countries, share similar plotlines. A popular tale is for a poor, beautiful girl to meet a rich and handsome man. He leaves his devious and manipulative upper-class girlfriend for her in an effort to spite his rich family, but gradually falls in love with the heroine. Aided by members of his own family, the scheming ex tries a series of tricks to split them up. Eventually, after hours of twists, turns and convoluted plot somersaults, sometimes spanning years, the bad guys meet a gruesome end and the happy couple get married and have a baby.
The first truly global example of the genre was 1979 Mexican series Los Ricos Tambien Lloran, or The Rich Cry Too, which was watched by an estimated 100 million viewers in Russia alone. Pravda reported that in the Caucasus warring Georgian and Abkhazian soldiers arranged a tacit truce at the hours the show aired so they could watch it.
Ms Tranter said she had been drawn to the genre after the success of Bleak House, the BBC’s Bafta-winning Charles Dickens adaptation, which was pacily shot and scheduled in the style of a soap in twice-weekly half-hour episodes.
BBC1 would make another Dickens adaptation, she said, but first wanted to have a go at "something a bit cheekier".
If the BBC can come up with a hit it would add an important element to its drama slate. While it has enjoyed a string of hits including Life on Mars, Doctor Who, Jane Eyre, Spooks, and Hustle, the BBC believes a long-running drama serial would be a valuable weapon in the ratings war and help draw an audience on nights when EastEnders and its hospital dramas are off air. Ms Tranter said the BBC might simply take an existing telenovela and reshoot it for a British audience, as ABC did with Ugly Betty, or get writers who understand the genre to come up with new ideas. "We’ll flirt around with it and have some fun with it," she said.
The corporation’s first stab at the genre would result in between 12 and 20 hours of television, which might run as half-hour or 60-minute episodes. "They all share a certain quality," Ms Tranter said. "They’ve all got that brio and spirit. They don’t take themselves too seriously and yet emotionally they’re quite tough. When it’s joy, it’s real joy and when it’s pain, it’s real pain."
But she promised that any BBC telenovela would stay true to the spirit of the genre and not tip into irony or kitsch. "They aren’t the stuff of UK television culture so you have to understand what it is before you start breaking the rules. If we take some of the things that are very strong in it and have permission to have a bit of fun, we’ll probably get something really good out of it."
From Cuna de Lobos, a hugely popular 1986 Mexican telenovela
Carlos, head of an international pharmaceuticals giant, tells his wife, Catalina, he knows her secret and plans to expose her. She has long claimed she was blinded in one eye by his eldest son from a previous marriage in an effort destroy the boy’s confidence and allow his younger brother Alejandro, her son with Carlos, to thrive. She poisons and kills Carlos.
However, in his will Carlos has decreed that whichever of his sons produces a son first will control the company. Alejandro’s wife, Vilma, is infertile so he secretly "marries" a second woman, Leonora, and has a son, Edgar. Alejandro and Catalina take the child and dump Leonora in an asylum. Alejandro returns to Vilma and they pass the child off as their own.
Leonora escapes from the asylum, marries elder brother Juan Carlos and undertakes a series of byzantine schemes to unmask Alejandro, recover her child and punish Catalina.
The evil mother retaliates, protecting her scheme through a series of murders. Eventually, after many twists and turns, the story arrives at a happy and just conclusion.
Una noticia chacotera, por fin.!!!Ufff!!! Sólo les recuerdo a los editores que, aunque les duela, geográficamente México es parte de Norteamérica, aunque el corazoncito de muchos de los "bien nacidos" esté un poco más al Sur.
P.D. Utas ya tengo que acabar, pero esto del blog se me ha convertido un vicio. ?No habrá algún centro de rehabilitación tipo Oceánica?