Ugly Never Looked So Good

Times Staff Writer

Tip your sombrero, Juan Valdez, to Colombia’s next cultural icon: Ugly Betty.

When the English-language telenovela about the fashion-challenged character premieres on ABC prime time this month, it will vault the Colombian broadcast industry into the middle of U.S. pop culture.

The global success of the Betty character, which first appeared here seven years ago, launched Colombia as a major force in telenovelas, as soap operas are called in Spanish.

Yo Soy Betty, la Fea,” or “I Am Betty, the Ugly,” has been broadcast in 13 languages and 74 countries. It has led to the development of a Colombian genre of telenovela combining humor and offbeat plots that contrast with the dominant Mexican soaps, which rely more on a familiar set of plots with racial and class overtones, analysts say.


Colombian studios are now churning out a dozen telenovelas annually, most of which readily find audiences in countries as far away as Russia, South Africa, China and the Czech Republic.

“It’s a reversal of U.S. cultural imperialism,” said Felix Gutierrez, a professor at USC’s Annenberg journalism school who specializes in Latino media.

In the 1990s, it was difficult for the few soaps produced here to reach foreign audiences. Now, the industry accounts for hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in export revenue. Much of the credit, industry executives say, goes to Betty, the irrepressibly romantic fashion house assistant, for making U.S. and other foreign broadcasters regard Colombian programming.

“Betty” is the story of an intelligent but painfully unattractive young Latina who struggles to fit in at a glamour magazine.

“Ugly Betty” will be seen in the U.S. on Sept. 28 in a series co-produced by actress Salma Hayek. Television executives here who have seen it say it is faithful to the original.

“It will be like my Oscar to see Betty shown on American TV, an industry with the highest standards in the world with programs like ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Six Feet Under,’ ” said Betty’s creator, Fernando Gaitan, 45, a former newspaper reporter. “It’s the maximum recognition a writer can receive, for me and for my character.”

Betty is no stranger to some viewers in the U.S. Sky-high ratings in Colombia led to her acquisition by Telemundo, the No. 2 U.S. Spanish-language network, where she had a spectacular run.

“She was our highest-rated program of the 2000-01 season,” said James M. McNamara, then president of Telemundo and now chairman of Miami-based Panamax Films. “At the time, our network was getting killed every day and Betty helped put us on the map.”

Shortly after, Telemundo signed a production agreement with Caracol, one of three main producers here, the first by a U.S. network with a Colombian studio. Similar deals signed afterward by the other main Colombian studios, RCN and RTI, jump-started the industry.

The Latino programming market is dominated by Mexico’s broadcast giant Televisa, which supplies the majority of prime-time soaps to Univision, the No. 1 U.S. Spanish-language network. Televisa owns 13% of Univision and has a long-term deal to give Univision first call on all its programs.

But the Colombians are catching up. RTI, which formed a production partnership with Telemundo in 2003, may produce nine telenovelas this year in its Bogota, Mexico City and Miami studios, up from three programs in 2003, said Patricio Wills, president of RTI and head of production for Telemundo Studios.

“What we have going for us is that we are something different from Mexico, a different way, with a little more humor, of telling the same love story, of adding a little additional sauce to the recipe,” Wills said in a telephone interview from Miami.

Univision, which controls about two-thirds of the Spanish-speaking U.S. TV audience, this year will broadcast five Colombian soaps, up from just two last year, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Colombia now is second to Mexico as a provider of prime-time telenovelas to U.S. networks, ahead of Brazil and Venezuela.

Colombia’s television industry has been helped by the growth in prime-time Latino audiences and the U.S. media outlets that are geared to them. Total ad revenues in the top Spanish-language networks, Univision, Telemundo, TeleFutura and TV Azteca, are estimated at $1.8 billion a year, up 8% from last year.

That compares with “very flat, zero growth” in U.S. English-language networks, said Phil Remek, senior equity analyst with Miami-based Guzman & Co., a securities firm.

Although many viewers may be tired of the plots of Mexican soaps, those story lines still dominate the market, resonating with viewers of Mexican ancestry who account for 60% of all U.S. Latinos.

But Colombian programming has the advantage of costing as much as 20% less to produce than Mexican shows, according to Gaitan, who now writes and produces soaps. He sees Colombia becoming a “maquiladora,” or a factory, for programming production for channels around the world.

The Colombian industry owes its growth partly to quotas against foreign programming. In 1998, Colombia’s two state-owned TV stations were privatized.

The stations’ new owners, RCN and Caracol, were immediately faced with the problem of filling a day’s worth of broadcast time instead of the few hours of programming they supplied to the networks.

The channels had to ramp up production overnight because Colombian law forbade them from putting foreign-produced programming on prime time and allowed only 30% of it during the entire day.

In business since 1963, the production house RTI moved to Miami to supply stations throughout the Latin world. Now the Telemundo-RTI partnership produces shows that typically premiere first on Telemundo and then are exported to Colombia and other countries.

But some in the industry warn that Colombian television executives need to be cautious as the rapid growth in the U.S. Spanish-language broadcast market may have peaked.

Guzman & Co.’s Remek notes that although Latino TV ad revenues are growing at a healthy rate, they have fallen to single-digit growth from double digits a few years ago.

The leveling off is caused by the fact that luxury brands don’t advertise on Latino channels because as their audience becomes more affluent, it migrates to English-language channels, Remek said.

“They may be close to saturation in the ad dollars they can attract,” he said of Spanish-language channels. “Upscale-oriented advertisers like Merrill Lynch or Lexus don’t go there.”

Colombian studios are bracing for more competition on their home turf in 2008, when the 10-year government-supported duopoly of RCN and Caracol ends. A third station will be licensed to the highest bidder, and the rumor is that Televisa will build a station and studio, which could stiffen competition.

Terms of a free-trade agreement being negotiated by the U.S. and Colombia may call for the market here to open up even more.

Gaitan said that despite the changes, Colombia would thrive because of its talent and low costs.

“Colombia’s constant innovation in often difficult circumstances is what always awakens interest from outside,” he said.