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Telemundo Has a New Game Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Years before Regis Philbin knotted his shiny tie and walked on to the set of ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” producers in Sevilla, Spain, were enjoying the success of their game show, “Numeros Rojos” (Red Numbers), where contestants vied for the chance to jettison their personal debt. It might not sound as sexy as collecting a million cool greenbacks, but walking away from a car payment, mortgage and credit card debt seemed chock-full o’ euphoria for viewers in Spain.

And television executives want nothing if not euphoria.

So, make way for “Numeros Rojos,” Saturday nights at 8 on the Spanish-language television network Telemundo. The hourlong program will include, on occasion, contestants who sit on wooden construction horses and use Don Quixote lances to catch Frisbees thrown by members of the studio audience. Telemundo unveiled its new fall programming Monday evening, with a clear goal of cashing in on overseas hits, like “Numeros Rojos,” and the tried and true strategies on U.S. networks, like wrestling and morning news shows.

The South Florida-based network has recovered from a disastrous programming decision aimed at lifting old TV series scripts like “Charlie’s Angels” and recasting and shooting in Spanish. That sent ratings plummeting in the fall of ’98. The network has since returned to a prime-time block of the well-loved telenovelas, Spanish-language soap operas that run for only a few months.

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“We are very pleased with the overall progress we’ve made in marching back from ratings in Siberia,” said Jim McNamara, the CEO and president of the Telemundo Network Group, whose first day on the job was last August. “I took over in the summer, when ratings are always low. It was also a time when we were unsure of our direction.”

Morning Hosts and Weekend Wrestling

Telemundo’s Latino household ratings for adults have increased by 67% from April ’99 to last month, but that increase is tempered by the raw data--the network’s April ’99 rating was 0.8 as compared to last month’s rating of a 1.4. (In terms of market share this year, Telemundo has a 22 share, while rival Univision still dominates with a 78 share.)

In an effort to build on those numbers, the network announced a new staple of its weekday programming: a 7-9 a.m. morning news and information show called “Buenos Dias,” the network’s first morning show. The co-hosts are former CBS “This Morning” host Jose Diaz-Balart and Gloria Calzada, who used to anchor for Univision.

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“Gloria is identified as a Mexican, and Diaz-Balart is a Cuban, so we get that West Coast-East Coast thing,” McNamara said.

The network will also showcase World Wrestling Federation, by moving it to the prime-time slot of Saturdays at 7 p.m.

“I don’t try to get too philosophical about these things,” McNamara said. “WWF does huge numbers with our audience, so we’re going to give them some WWF.”

On weekdays, the network’s 7-11 p.m. telenovela block will include Brazil’s “Tierra Nuestra,” the biggest-budget telenovela ever made. Dubbed from its original Portuguese into Spanish, “Tierra Nuestra” follows the immigrant saga of a family at the turn of the century who left Italy for South America.

“This is one of our centerpieces,” McNamara said, adding that the network will co-produce a series of original telenovelas in Mexico with Columbia TriStar International Television this year.

‘Yo Soy Betty’ and ‘Viva Vegas!’

One of the “lighter” fairy tales that will be aired on Telemundo already has garnered huge audiences during broadcasts throughout South America as “Yo Soy Betty, La Fea” (I Am Betty, the Ugly).

The Colombian show centers on a career woman in braces, glasses and bad hair who cannot climb the corporate ladder or find true love because she is not glamorous. The man she meets in the first episode ultimately falls in love with her beautiful personality by the 200th episode. But it’s not too much sacrifice because, once he declares his love for Betty the Ugly, the telenovela’s makeup people go into high gear and Betty ultimately emerges as a ravishing woman with perfect white teeth, contact lenses and a great haircut.

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Some of this season’s shows that will remain on the air from Monday through Friday include the network’s award-winning nightly newsmagazine, “Ocurrio Asi,” as well as network news at 6:30 and 11:30 p.m.

On Sunday nights at 8:30, the new half-hour sitcom “Viva Vegas!” will chronicle the exploits of two Venezuelan brothers who move to Las Vegas in search of a glamorous life. The show replaces last season’s “Solo en America,” a rare and progressive sitcom for Spanish-language television, where a divorced mother worked full time and raised her two daughters. The show was based on the 1970s show “One Day at a Time.”


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