After years of garnering huge ratings in Spanish-speaking markets, Mexico's popular TV genre has become a global phenomenon.MEXICO CITY -- On a soundstage in the heart of Mexico City, a melodrama is unfolding: Preternaturally attractive actors and actresses are playing out a familiar scenario of love and vengeance before the cameras of the TV Azteca hit "Montecristo." But the real drama is occurring backstage as crew members scramble to keep the well-oiled -- and highly popular -- telenovela machine humming.
When early Latin American telenovelas hit the airwaves about five decades ago, few imagined that the genre would become an international phenomenon. With a worldwide audience surpassing 2 billion, though, novela-mania is spreading like wildfire.
Once limited to Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking territories, novelas can now be seen in such far-flung places as Malaysia, Namibia and Turkey.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the genre's appeal is the hugely popular "Yo Soy Betty, la Fea" (I Am Betty, the Ugly), which has sold in about 70 nations. The groundbreaking novela, created by Colombian network RCN, centers on an unattractive secretary who relies on her intelligence to climb the career ladder at a fashion design house.
"Betty," which originally aired on RCN in 1999, has become so hot that ABC has adapted an English-language version titled "Ugly Betty," with Salma Hayek -- who began her career acting in novelas -- as an executive producer.
In Mexico, a Televisa remake of the program has drawn excellent ratings. The Mexican version, "La Fea Mas Bella" (The Prettiest Ugly Girl), also has performed well for Televisa's stateside partner Univision.
RCN international sales director Maria Lucia Hernandez notes that "Betty" has allowed her company to cross over into markets that previously seemed out of reach.
"Before, for example, we had never sold in India, Holland or Germany," she says. "An important factor was that it appealed to markets looking for a comedic telenovela, rather than the more-traditional novelas."
Now that many Latin American novela stars have become household names in the international marketplace, the question on many minds is why the genre enjoys such broad crossover appeal.
Marcos Santana, CEO of Tepuy International, which handles worldwide distribution of telenovelas produced by Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, likens a telenovela to a good book. "Once it hooks you in the beginning, you want to see it through to the end," he says.
Similar to soaps or romance novels, telenovelas feature archetypal -- or stereotypical, depending on one's perspective -- characters that earnestly act out familiar tales of love, loss, tragedy and redemption. But unlike U.S. soaps, which can run for decades, telenovelas have definite endings, making them more attractive for viewers who wish to move from one story to the next.
In addition, broadcasters like the fact that they can fill their daily programming schedules with content that draws consistently solid ratings.
"You can air them for six months and forget about that time slot because they usually work well," Santana says.
A typical novela serial consists of 120-180 episodes. Costs can range from $20,000-$80,000 an episode, depending on the locations and production quality. According to Santana, who also heads program development at Telemundo, most novelas sell for about 30%-35% of their production cost.
Given the genre's tremendous success, it comes as no surprise that mainstream U.S. networks are hopping on the telenovela bandwagon. In addition to "Ugly Betty," set to premiere Thursday, Fox-owned MyNetworkTV recently bowed "Desire" and "Fashion House," both based on telenovela formats. NBC has "Body of Desire," an adaptation of NBC Universal sister network Telemundo's hit novela "El Cuerpo del Deseo," and CBS reportedly is developing several novela projects.
So far, though, stateside ratings havebeen underwhelming: "Desire" averaged a 0.8 rating/1 share during its first week, with "House" tallying a 0.9/1 during the same period.
Oddly, Telemundo was not even producing novelas 31?2 years ago, opting instead to acquire the product. Now, the company puts out about eight serials a year and has become not only one of the world's top novela producers but also an important exporter.
"We've had a dramatic increase in our international profile," Telemundo president Don Browne says. "We're now competing with Televisa in a lot of countries."
Mexican media giant Televisa churns out about a dozen telenovelas a year, making it the No. 1 producer worldwide. The broadcaster's serials air in 50 nations on five continents. The teen novela "Rebelde," one of the network's most successful productions, has become a social phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking world. RBD, the show's spinoff pop group, is the hottest Latin American act since Puerto Rican boy band Menudo.
Televisa has sold "Rebelde" to more than 15 nations, while at home the broadcaster has capitalized on an unprecedented marketing blitz behind the Mexican brat pack. "In Mexico, we've never seen anything like this before because we've never exploited it in this manner," Televisa licensing and products director Maricarmen Rotter says.
Televisa also is developing a feature-length film based on "Rebelde," and RBD has recorded its first English-language album.
Telenovelas figure to remain Televisa's bread and butter for many years, not to mention its most important export product. Last year, the broadcaster took in nearly $110 million in royalties -- more than half of its annual programming-export revenue -- under its program-license agreement with Univision. A significant portion of that came from the novelas Televisa provides to Univision for its primetime programming.
During recent years, as a growing number of viewers have tuned in to telenovelas, more nations are producing them. Typically, when one thinks of novela-producing nations, such markets as Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela come to mind. These days, though, nations such as Romania and Turkey are making their own versions based on Latin American formats.
While that is good news for the genre, it also means that demand for imports has diminished in territories where local content has taken precedence over foreign fare, notes Marcel Vinay, vp international sales at Mexican network TV Azteca.
"Today we recoup about 30% of our investment on a novela, but about 10 years ago we could recoup about 200%," says Salvador Mejia, Televisa's telenovela production director. "That's because of more competition from about six countries in South America and from other nations that are producing their own telenovelas."
Nonetheless, there are no signs that leading producers such as Televisa, Telemundo and TV Azteca are slowing their output. On the contrary, given the world's growing appetite for melodramatic content, novela factories are staying busy.