Is America at large ready for the telenovela?
A new network is staking its fate on it. The decision of The WB Network and UPN to merge into the soon-to-debut CW orphaned many stations that mainly were UPN affiliates. 20th Century Fox then revised its plans to syndicate dramas inspired by the Latin American telenovela concept, amounting to nightly soap operas, and built a tightly formatted coalition of stations around the shows instead.
My Network TV launches Tuesday, Sept. 5, with two hourlong series that will air each weeknight for 13 weeks: "Desire," the saga of two brothers (Nate Haden, Zack Silva) who covet the same woman (Michelle Belegrin) as they flee from mobsters; and "Fashion House," casting Bo Derek and Morgan Fairchild as bitter rivals in the title business. In addition to the nightly telecasts, extra shows on Saturdays will recap the past week's episodes.
Reality shows also were considered for the My Network TV mix, but its primary overseer -- Jack Abernethy, also the CEO of Fox-owned television stations -- is willing to gamble the new operation entirely on telenovelas now.
"People watch soaps in the day and they're very popular," he reasons, "so why wouldn't they be popular in prime time? What is so special about American prime-time television that you can't put on a [five-nights-a-week] show? The thing that got us most excited was when we started to see what we had shot and started to see the shows come together."
And to the credit of their stamina, the shows' casts and crews have worked an intense schedule, basically shooting a fresh one-hour program each day. "Desire" co-star Sofia Milos says she previously didn't believe "you could do 22 pages in a day. On 'CSI: Miami' (on which Milos was a semiregular), we'd maybe do six or seven or eight pages in a day.
"The way we did it was with different teams. You'd go from one director to another, and you'd even work with three during the course of the same day. It's a little bit like theater. You trust your character, and you go with it."
"Fashion House" regular Fairchild is no stranger to serialized dramas, with "Search for Tomorrow," "Dallas," "Flamingo Road" and "Falcon Crest" all on her resume. "I started in the theater when I was 10," she says, "so I've survived for a lot of years in this business, and I actually had to memorize more pages sometimes than we're doing here on certain [episodes]. It's challenging, but it's also very invigorating."
It's trendsetting as well, in Fairchild's view. "Our business in particular is changing so much right now -- a new network and a whole new format and a whole new kind of programming -- I really wanted to be part of that. I think it's very ambitious, but it's also very gratifying to be part of that cutting edge. For the young people in the shows, it's a great showcase where they're not just getting two lines on an episode of something, but a chance to really have a story arc and create something and establish themselves."
Other networks are mining telenovelas, too; ABC's upcoming, highly touted "Ugly Betty" also is based on one. If the style is deemed "over the top" by some, the My Network TV series are fueled by Americanizations of scripts initially developed for foreign shows. "Fashion House" co-star Derek is familiar with some of the original versions, and she says, "I like the Central American ones, with all the horses and high drama on the ranch. The 'Romeo and Juliet' love stories are my favorites."
Being devoted to My Network TV could cause a viewer to forsake competing shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Lost," "Grey's Anatomy," "My Name Is Earl," "The Office," "American Idol" (when it's in season), etc., etc. Another executive in charge of the new network, Twentieth Television's Paul Buccieri agrees, "It's a big commitment. We're committing six hours of programming a week to one specific show."
After My Network TV's first two telenovelas have run their courses, others will be ready to move in. Tatum O'Neal has been cast in "Art of Betrayal," slated to debut in December, but some of the network's founding actors could be back. "People who watch the genre fall in love with [the actors], and they actually enjoy seeing them as other characters in other arcs," Buccieri says. "If we find somebody we think is really popping for us, we will not hesitate to put them in a different story line as a different character."
They'll likely need some rest first, as "10" movie icon Derek can attest. She has done other television work, but not with the kinds of demands entailed in moving through 65 episodes of "Fashion House" relatively rapidly.
"It's not as though you're sacrificing production quality or anything," she says. "It is a rough schedule, but it's all getting done. It's quite amazing. Part of the problem with acting on film is the sitting around and keeping your energy up, so I haven't had any of those complaints."