Latin 'Idol' gets its big break

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BUENOS AIRES -- If music and TV producers have learned anything from the success of the "Idol" franchise, it's that the world's next pop phenom could be found in any corner of the globe.

This thought prompted execs at Sony to develop a Spanish-language version of the booming FremantleMedia property that is seen in more than 100 countries.

"Latin American Idol" premiered in July on Sony Entertainment Television and airs in 24 countries throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, except Brazil. Ten finalists representing five Latin countries have been competing for the title -- and the lucrative Sony BMG recording contract that comes with it.

Thursday's live all-female finale will pit leggy Venezuelan Mayre Martinez against soulful Argentine Noelia Soto, with viewers from throughout the region calling and text messaging their votes.

Producers have high hopes that "Idol" fever will continue to build momentum throughout the Latino market and have greenlighted another season of the show.

"The feedback has been spectacular. To start on this level is great, and the idea is to improve each season," says Sergio Pizzolante, vp and general manager of SPE Networks Latin America.

The project was an ambitious and risky one for producers Sony, Fremantle and 19 Entertainment. Whereas there are more than 30 country-specific versions of the show that air worldwide, "Latin American Idol" culls talent from a pool of more than 350 million people.

"This is the first show ever that has been done for a pan-regional market," says Jack Alfandary, vp licensing and new business development for Fremantle Productions Latin America. "The 'Idol' franchise follows a very specific formula, but to make it attractive for the local audience, we made some changes. This version has a more Latin look, feel and flavor."

The 10 finalists were chosen from the more than 25,000 hopefuls who showed up for open auditions in four regional capitals: Mexico City, Caracas, Bogota and Buenos Aires, where the finals have been filming since July.

Of course, what is "Idol" without the judges? The aspiring superstars have had to work hard to impress the three seasoned veterans behind the desk.

Cuban crooner Jon Secada, Mexican singer Elizabeth Meza and Puerto Rican producer Gustavo Sanchez have each enjoyed international success in the music biz.

Grammy winner Secada has sold over 20 million records worldwide.

Meza is a singer-songwriter known for her chops and versatility.

Sanchez is a jack of all trades who managed Chayenne to international stardom and garnered awards as a director and producer.

While the feisty formula employed by Randy, Paula and Simon on Fox's "American Idol" has undoubtedly been one of the reasons for that show's success in the U.S., the Latin judges keep the bickering to a minimum and even -- gasp! -- seem to like each other.

"The nature of Latino culture is very passionate and very endearing, and that comes across in our show" Secada says.

To the contestants, the threesome are encouraging, often to a fault, preferring to focus on the positive aspects of the performances. But that's not to say it's all lovey-dovey. The burly and bilingual Sanchez gets sarcastic and salty at times and likes to pepper his critiques with English and Spanish slang.

"If you're not yourself, people don't believe it," Sanchez says. "Simon Cowell is so powerful because he is who he is. He's not pretending, and neither am I. That's the secret."

As per the "Idol" blueprint, most tunes performed on the show are covers of Spanish pop songs and tear-jerking ballads.

These reality-style music competition shows are nothing new to the Spanish-speaking world. While shows like "Operacion Triunfo" and "Escalera a la Fama" have done well in their local markets, once the show is over, it's been hard for the winner to sustain a career.

"Look at Kelly Clarkson and the other 'American Idol' winners. They've sold like 35 million albums. If we miss the opportunity to turn our Idol into a huge star in the region, well then we've basically done nothing," Pizzolante says.

The show is being filmed in suburban Buenos Aires, at Estudio Baires, one of the continent's most storied movie studios. The talented local crews and cheap rates made Argentina a perfect choice for production.

"You would be surprised how fewer resources we are putting into this show here compared to the U.S. version, but the quality is right up there," Pizzolante says.

There has been criticism that the idiosyncrasies that make each country unique get filtered out, a claim that producers and contestants refute.

"I think it's impossible for us to lose our identities as people and as singers," says 22-year-old finalist Soto, who cites Mariah Carey, David Bisbal and Shakira as her musical idols. "The fact that we all speak the same language, but with a different accent and style, makes the show even more fun."

It also brings out a sense of national pride.

"I'm so proud to be here and represent Colombia," says 20-year-old Isa Mosquera, who was the third finalist eliminated. "It's an unbelievable and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
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