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Reality takes a novela turn

Times Staff Writer

The genre’s still new enough to Spanish-language television that nobody’s given it a name yet.

“Rrrrreality?” suggested Univision President Ray Rodriguez with a shrug. “Just roll the R.”

Or the dice. Spanish-language networks are gambling that reality television is about to win over the U.S. Latino market in a big way.

Telemundo, which pioneered the genre with such hits as “La Cenicienta” (Cinderella), now is facing competition from the much larger Univision and its sister network TeleFutura. The three networks combined are developing nine unscripted series for the upcoming season that, in an unprecedented move, will be scheduled in prime-time slots typically devoted to highly popular telenovelas.

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At stake for the networks: 39 million potential viewers, with a median age of 26 and a buying power of nearly $570 billion.

“We’ve been tracking reality in English and we know that our audience has an affinity for and attraction to it,” said Ramon Escobar, executive vice president of programming and production at Telemundo. “This audience is very savvy. They watch the shows in English so we have to come up with original twists that appeal to them directly.”

No show did a better job of attracting bilingual viewers than Fox’s “American Idol,” the most-watched show among the young Latinos sought by advertisers, said Doug Alligood, senior vice president of special markets for the advertising agency BBDO Worldwide. But that same audience enjoys nightly doses of traditional soap opera fare

“What these networks have discovered is that the same people are watching soap operas at the same time every night, so maybe if there’s reality programming for them in Spanish, they’ll watch that too,” Alligood said.

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But getting there is not as simple as buying the rights to an English-language show, duplicating the format and having the participants speak in Spanish. Telemundo tried that last year, with disappointing results, when it aired “La Isla de Tentacion,” its version of “Temptation Island.” For a reality show to work in the Spanish-speaking market, producers believe, the audience must identify with the participants and relate to their cultural sagas, even when the heroine is a modern-day Cinderella as in the case of Telemundo’s highly rated “La Cenicienta,” a dating show that borrowed heavily from “The Bachelorette.”

And the best way to achieve that? Combine the suspense and clever twists of the reality genre with the compelling narrative form of telenovelas, which routinely dominate the top 20 prime-time shows on Spanish television. Unlike English-language soap operas, telenovelas wind up in a few months and feature superstar casts, fast-paced action and plot turns that run the gamut from sex and romance to murder and betrayal.

“At the heart of our reality TV is the concept that our audience loves: the love story or the dramatic arc or conflict that is at the heart of a telenovela,” Escobar said. “Reality has struck a chord because it revolves around human dramas and relationships that our audience cares about as well as the aspirational elements that are so popular in our novelas.”

Cultural issues

No one better understands the specific challenge to come up with shows that are at once original and culturally relevant than Nely Galan. The former Telemundo head of programming left 10 years ago to start her own production company and is the only reality-TV producer straddling the ever-expanding genre biculturally. A striking, often polarizing player in Spanish-language broadcasting in the U.S., Galan found her own lucrative niche with shows in both languages that play on her own ideas about women, like herself, who make lemonade out of life’s lemons: Telemundo’s “La Cenicienta” and Fox’s “The Swan.”

“La Cenicienta,” which aired in the fall, featured Minerva Ruvalcaba, a Mexican American divorced single mother searching for Prince Charming among a group of 20 bachelors of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In addition to worrying about impressing Cinderella, the suitors answered to her mother, brother, godmother, two friends, a priest and an astrologer. When they spent time with Ruvalcaba, a chaperon tagged along to make sure there was no hanky-panky."The issue I was interested in, especially, was single motherhood and the hypocrisy in our market that a single mother is damaged goods but men get to do whatever they want,” Galan said. “I really believe that when you work from your life experiences and the issues you need to work out and the things that resonate with you, they will resonate with others. That’s what people responded to in that show, that beautiful single mother who has had such bad luck with love.”

“La Cenicienta,” Escobar added, “showed us that machismo is alive and well in most Latin families.” Which is precisely what Galan says inspired the show. A single mother of a 4-year-old boy, Galan, who had dealt with her family’s pressures to find Mr. Right throughout her life, said she felt a lot of shame when she became a mother without becoming a wife.

“I like to do shows based on my own experience,” said the 40-year-old Cuban-born producer, who says she also developed “The Swan” -- a successful but controversial unscripted show in which women undergo sometimes dramatic plastic surgery as well as Galan’s unique brand of “life coaching” -- out of her personal aging crisis. “When I was coming up with ‘La Cenicienta,’ ‘The Bachelor’ was on the air and I thought about how I could put my own spin on it. As a single mother, in the American world, I’m cool. But in the Latin world, there’s something wrong with me. It made me realize that I can work in both of these worlds because I live in both worlds. So I think about the issues on my mind and I explore if it’s coming from my Latina self or from just being a woman and I go from there.”

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Like many of its English-language counterparts, “La Cenicienta” had a deceiving twist -- one that built suspense and exposed an age-old double standard. The audience knew about Ruvalcaba’s 3-year-old daughter and two failed marriages by age 23, but producers strategically kept that from the bachelors to force them to deal with their macho tendencies.

“None of the reality shows on the English channels would have given a woman like me, a single mother, a chance to go on television and look for love,” said Ruvalcaba, now 24. “You know that many Latin men are very machista and wouldn’t accept a woman like me. I am the opposite of what Cinderella is. But on the show I was treated like a princess and I realized that I deserve to be treated that way, even if I have not known how to select the best men for myself.”

Successes on Telemundo

Unlike English-language reality shows, which typically offer one or two original episodes a week, “La Cenicienta” aired nightly for six weeks, mimicking the pace of telenovelas, which run their course in a few months. It boasted the highest ratings in its time slot and 1.2 million viewers for its finale, a high number for Telemundo, which was bought by General Electric two years ago and is managed by NBC.

Reality Spanish-language programming debuted on Telemundo in 2002 with “Protagonistas,” a Big Brother variation in which aspiring actors shared a house while competing for a part in a telenovela. The finale of the first “Protagonistas” was watched by 1.4 million viewers -- a hit for Telemundo. But Univision and its sister network, TeleFutura, which control more than 75% of the U.S. Latino viewership, won’t be satisfied with anything short of a breakout hit.

“We want shows to work at the levels we want. We want blockbuster, family-sized, super-sized ratings,” said Otto Padron, Univision’s vice president of programming and promotions, whose network ranks fifth behind NBC, Fox, CBS and ABC in prime-time viewing among those ages 18 to 49. “The few times that it had been tried in Spanish, it had not succeeded at those levels.”

So the network with most viewers is about to jump into reality with two shows that may sound familiar in concept but will have a palpable Latin flavor. “Apostando al Amor” (Betting on Love), which blends elements of “The Bachelorette” and “For Love or Money,” involves a swan-like damsel who pretends to be an ugly duckling as she tests the intentions of her 30 suitors, with the help of her family. What she does not know is that the bachelors are also vying for a jackpot of money if she chooses them.

“It plays out like a traditional novela in that you have two people looking for love and all the obstacles that they endure,” Padron said. “There are romance, conflicts, jealousy and outwitting of each other. ‘The Bachelorette’ is more of a competition. This is warmer, has a human element to it.”

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Celebrity couple

Univision also will follow in the footsteps of MTV and document the lives of scandal-ridden celebrity couple Niurka Marcos and Bobby Larios. The soap opera stars met while filming a telenovela last year and began their very public love affair when she was still married to the producer who had made her a star. Marcos, who has single-handedly made Mexico’s “Big Brother VIP 3" a breakout hit this year, and her new husband, Larios, will let cameras into every aspect of their lives for six to eight weeks on “Lo Veremos Todo de Niurka y Bobby” (We Will See Everything About Niurka and Bobby). Marcos, whom executives call " a walking novela,” apparently intends to try to get pregnant and launch a record during production.

If “Newlyweds” and “Anna Nicole” are the models for the Marcos-Larios tell-all, “American Idol” is the clear inspiration behind TeleFutura’s “Objetivo Fama” (Objective: Fame) and Telemundo’s “Nuevas Voces de America” (New Voices of America). Music mogul and television and film producer Emilio Estefan created “Nuevas Voces” and will appear on camera as a mentor (his wife, singer Gloria Estefan, was a guest judge on last season’s “American Idol”).

“Spanish television is experiencing an incredible moment because this generation that was raised here has an educational and economic power and cultural strength that has never existed before,” Estefan said. “Reality television has a lot of momentum and has a lot of potential in this market.”

For the first five weeks, viewers will watch the contestants from all Latino backgrounds and musical genres work with voice coaches, stylists and image makers to hone their talent and skills. The audience also will be privy to the contestants’ back stories and will learn about their families and friends. The last 10 weeks will involve the race for a $200,000 recording contract.

“Latinos like to see the sacrifices people make to succeed,” said Estefan, who will produce the show in Miami. “They like that feeling of ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ ”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the pipeline

New unscripted programming on Spanish-language networks for the 2004-05 season:

Univision

Apostando al Amor (Betting on Love): Beautiful bachelorette goes undercover as an ugly duckling to test her suitors, who are motivated by money to win her over.

Lo Veremos Todo de Niurka y Bobby (We Will See Everything About Niurka and Bobby): Follows the high-profile, scandalous marriage of soap opera stars Niurka Marcos and Bobby Larios.

Dia de Perros (Dog Day): Takes Ashton Kutcher’s “Punk’d” one step further by challenging unwitting celebrities for a 24-hour period as they go through one crisis after another -- with such scenarios as being cut off in a parking lot and having to kiss someone with onion breath during an audition.

TeleFutura

En Busca de un Sueno (In Search of a Dream): A feel-good show in which viewers can nominate loved ones to have their dreams -- such as plastic surgery or family reunions -- come true.

El Veredicto del Pueblo (The People’s Verdict): A courtroom reality show in which the jury is the star and viewers get to observe jurors as they make decisions on cases. Naughty jurors can get voted off and replaced.

Objetivo Fama (Objective: Fame): A musical talent competition in which 18 contestants live together and vie for a Univision recording contract.

Telemundo

Nuevas Voces de America (New Voices of America): A musical talent competition, with plenty of behind-the-scenes drama and flavor, from Miami Sound Machine founder Emilio Estefan.

El Principe Azul (Prince Charming): Twenty Latinas compete for the love of a bachelor with a big secret.

La Hacienda: Sixteen city slickers are placed on a farm to see who can become the best ranchero.


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