Networks look to clean up with nighttime soaps

Night after night, in households from Puebla to Pico Rivera, tens of millions of loyal viewers tune in to their Spanish-language telenovelas, gasping at the seductions and betrayals on tear-jerkers like "Abismo de Pasión" ("Abyss Of Passion").

Now network executives, desperate to capitalize on the addictive powers of the prime-time soap operas, are copying the formula with English-language versions, starring marquee names. In some cases, they're even borrowing the five-nights-a-week format.

On Monday, the Nickelodeon cable channel premieres its new nighttime soap, "Hollywood Heights," a remake of an overly dramatic Mexican telenovela about a songwriter who falls in love with a rock star. Soap veteran James Franco, star of the film "127 Hours," has a featured role.

Lifetime may pick up "Devious Maids," a sudsy series about four Latina housekeepers in Beverly Hills, produced by "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry and co-starring daytime soap star Susan Lucci.

Both projects originated from Mexican media giant Grupo Televisa, which this spring opened a small studio in Santa Monica to dip into its vast library of telenovelas to adapt for English-language networks.

They're chasing a big prize. There are more than 50 million Latinos in the U.S. — the fastest-growing demographic group in the country — with more than $1 trillion in buying power. Latinos make up more than 25% of the under-35 set that is so appealing to TV advertisers.

More than half are comfortable speaking English and already are watching the major networks. And TV viewers of all cultures already are binge-viewing multiple episodes at once. The soap-like series "Desperate Housewives," "Gossip Girls" and the "Dallas" reboot were all audience hits. These and other factors suggest the timing is good for a soapy five-nights-a-week serial.

The telenovelas are only one network initiative to reach Latino viewers. This summer, News Corp. plans to roll out MundoFox, a new Spanish-language broadcast network, in collaboration with RCN Television Group, a Colombian media company. The venture will draw from RCN's ample chest of popular telenovelas.

Even "Modern Family," America's top-rated comedy, has winked at telenovela themes. Its final episode last month depicted two characters trying to adopt a baby in the border town of Calexico, where they were thwarted by a telenovela trifecta: a meddling priest, a mysterious cowboy and a controlling grandmother.

"The [characters] were going to a border town, and we said why don't we play it like a telenovela?" said the show's co-creator, Steven Levitan. "We needed a way to make a serious and downer scene funny. What else has ridiculous plot turns and overwrought actors that are far too good-looking? It turned out rather good."

On a spring afternoon near Glendale, camera operators maneuvered around the old "All My Children" sound stages off San Fernando Road. Several wore vests emblazoned with logos from another canceled ABC soap, "One Life to Live," but now they were working on "Hollywood Heights."

"Heights" is based on the hugely successful "Alcanzar Una Estrella" ("Reach for a Star"), which made its debut in Mexico in 1990 and spawned sequels, including one the following year featuring singer Ricky Martin. Co-produced by Sony Pictures Television, the show contains classic telenovela elements: betrayal, shock, longing gazes, steely-eyed glares and slamming doors — lots of slamming doors.

Nickelodeon will run the show in true telenovela fashion, with a new episode scheduled every weeknight from now through September.

"It will be like reading a summer book at the beach," said Marjorie Cohn, Nickelodeon's president of original programming and development. "Every day it's a continuation of the story. It will end up feeling like a prime-time soap."

The pursuit of telenovelas comes as traditional soaps are being scrubbed out. From a high of nearly 20 daily series, only four remain: NBC's "Days of Our Lives," CBS' "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful," and ABC's "General Hospital."

Now, a former "General Hospital" executive producer is running "Hollywood Heights," and the show's head writer also came up through the daytime-drama ranks.

How hot are telenovelas? Even "General Hospital" graduate James Franco will appear as part of a "Hollywood Heights" subplot.

The difference between the daytime soaps and their nighttime telenovela counterparts, the producers say, is that the canceled English-language serials appealed largely to older female viewers. The Spanish-language versions, however, draw multiple generations.

"These shows have been very successful in attracting families, particularly in the Latino community," Nickelodeon's Cohn said. "They have juicy stories and larger-than-life characters."

Televisa, an $11-billion enterprise that owns television networks, soccer teams and magazines, is the world's largest producer of telenovelas that already score with viewers in the U.S.

Network executives hope the English-language versions share other traits with their Spanish-language antecedents. According to a recent Rentrak study of TV viewer engagement, the Televisa-produced show on Univision, "La Que No Podía Amar" ("The One Who Couldn't Love"), held more of its viewers from beginning to end than any other show on the air, surpassing the most popular shows on television, including CBS' "NCIS," "60 Minutes" and "The Mentalist." Third on the Rentrak list was Televisa's other Univision hit, "Abismo de Pasión."

This isn't the first time U.S. programmers have flirted with telenovelas. Six years ago, ABC scored by turning a wildly popular Colombian telenovela into "Ugly Betty," a dramedy about a clumsy heroine.

But "Ugly Betty" ran once a week. The last time an American company tried a true telenovela, the results were catastrophic. Fox's MyNetwork TV flopped badly in 2006 with a series of cheaply produced programs for English-speaking audiences, including "Fashion House," which starred Bo Derek.

The network lost an estimated $50 million on its telenovela try. "The networks are under pressure to try new things and take some bigger risks," said Danielle Gonzales, managing director of the Chicago-based multicultural ad agency Tapestry. "Networks have tried scripted shows, reality shows, and here is this different format: a novella with a beginning, middle and end."

With more than two-thirds of U.S. Latinos having Mexican heritage, network executives are particularly interested in the soaps produced there.

Until recently, Televisa showed little interest in reaching English-speaking audiences. Then, a little more than a year ago, producers and network executives — including a delegation from Nickelodeon — began traveling to Mexico City, seeking permission to adapt their telenovelas into English-language shows, which led to the opening of the Santa Monica studio.

Televisa's stated "Latin feel with American appeal" goal — shared by its U.S.-based co-producers — is to extend the reach beyond Latino viewers. That translates into more diverse casts. Only a handful of actors on "Hollywood Heights" are Latino.

"Everyone is trying to target the Latino market, but we are trying to do something a bit broader here," said Paul Presburger, managing director of Televisa USA. "Latinos want to watch universal stories with Hollywood stars, often Latin stars, going through experiences that everybody goes through."

After all, U.S.-born Latinos are more likely to watch English-language television. About 70% of such first-generation Latinos watch English-language channels. That number exceeds 90% for second-generation U.S.-born Latinos, according to according to a Pew Hispanic Center study.

Carlos Ponce, a telenovela star in Mexico, now plays the father of rock star Eddie Duran on Nickelodeon's "Hollywood Heights."

"I compare this to 'The Cosby Show,'" Ponce said last month before filming a scene. "That wasn't a show about an African American family, it was a show about a family that happened to be African American. In this case, it's the same thing. We're second- and third-generation [Latinos], which is what this country is built of right now."

meg.james@latimes.com

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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