Disney embraces tween telenovelas

"Patito Feo's" international reach includes everything from toys to food products, with 60 licensees expected in southern Europe by year's end.

'Patito Feo,' 'Jake & Blake' spread worldwide

MADRID -- A tween telenovela titled "Patito Feo" purportedly has Disney's internationally minded president and CEO Robert Iger agog, knocking the company's franchises like "Hannah Montana" off the top of local ratings and soundtrack charts across southern Europe.

Produced by little-known Buenos Aires boutique Ideas del Sur, with co-production and distribution by Mexico colossus Televisa, the soap is breaking records in Spain, Portugal and Italy and is poised to launch in Greece and Turkey. (TV, home video and merchandising and licensing rights are managed by Madrid-based Elastic Rights in southern Europe.)

Not surprisingly, Disney executives see this not as a one-off phenomenon but rather a trend upon which they can build.

"Patito" boasts a multiplatform marketing campaign with a flourishing merchandising and licensing business. By year's end, there will be 60 licensees in all three southern European territories, including toys, perfume, home decor, suitcases, party goods, food products and apparel.

That's after the show's first two seasons turned it into a social sensation throughout Latin America, where 800,000 tickets to live shows have been bought.

The $4 million-a-season serial, which ran 155 episodes during its first season in 2007 and 145 the second season in Argentina, centers on an awkward 13-year-old -- nicknamed Patito, which means duckling -- who is a natural at singing. Her dream is to meet her father and become a famous singer.

Diego Lerner, president of Disney's Latin American operations, quickly snatched Latin American rights from the producers three years ago; it began airing on all feeds of Disney Channel in Latin America in 2007.

Until now, it has been the original "Patito" that airs on pay and free TV in Europe and Latin America, with Televisa running the only remake, "Dare to Dream," in Mexico.

But that appears set to change as Televisa is looking to take the format to France and Germany.

"The local cultures in Germany or France make it more appropriate to adapt the format, and the success of 'Patito' allows us to do it much faster than we otherwise would have," says Ricardo Ehrsman, Televisa GM for Europe and Asia.

In the U.S., Televisa's localized Mexican version is running on Univision, and MTV Networks has picked up the option for an English-language remake.

"MTV is presently studying scripts and adapting them for American audiences," Televisa English's Al Pando says. "They just finished writing the pilot, and we expect they'll decide to go ahead with the project soon. They want to make a weekly one-hour American-style series with the format."

Beyond that, the tween telenovela subgenre is catching on -- and Disney is blazing the trail.

It beat out its key Latin American competition -- Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon -- by picking up pay TV rights for all of Latin America on Ideas del Sur and Televisa's next co-production, "Consentidos," which revolves around a group of misbehaving high school teens and their adventures with romance and music.

A similar model to "Patito," the series already is performing well in Argentina. Disney holds the option for Europe, and MTV snagged the English-language remake option for the U.S.

"It's a good symbiosis with Disney," Ehrsman says. "We're working very closely with them."

Disney is working with other producers as well.

Argentinean production houses RGB Entertainment and Cris Moreno Group
made the English-language "Jake & Blake" for Disney, which saw it land the top slot in Argentina, Chile and Venezuela during its first two months, with Mexico and Peru seeing it rise to No. 2. The show, starring Argentina's Benjamin Rojas, revolves around twins separated at birth leading diametrically opposite lives -- one as a diligent student and the other as a pop star.

Disney is in development on an English-language remake of the Argentine telenovela "Floricienta" for Disney Channel in the U.S. The series, also from RGB and Cris Moreno, has proved a hit in Latin America and Europe, spawning more than 200 licensed products. The heroine is Floricienta, a modern Cinderella whose life changes when she falls in love with Federico Fritzenwalden, the eldest son of a rich family.

"To further the connection Disney Channel has with kids and families, we are committed to localized content becoming global and global content becoming localized," says Patti McTeague, senior vp kids communications at Disney-ABC. "We have development hubs around the world. 'Jake & Blake' is one of many examples of our content strategy."

After premiering May 17 in Spain, followed by Italy and Israel, the next stop for "Jake & Blake" could be the U.S. market.

"I see a real appetite for this genre, not only because the properties offer daily broadcast but because rather than tween, it is actually a family series in Europe," Ehrsman says. "From the very start, that's been the way to go with this product. If you angle it only for kids, you're missing the point."

In Spain, Disney's audience for "Patito" is 40% girls 4-12 and 28% women 25-44 -- that is to say, moms.

Jose Vila, managing director of Disney Channel in Spain and Portugal, says preteens bond with "Patito" for the same reasons they have with "High School Musical" and "Camp Rock."

"The music and choreography are embedded in the plot," he says. "And the characters are ones that children can completely identify with, representing an ideal friend for them. That's where the fan phenom is rooted."

"Jake & Blake"

Elastic Rights CEO Ignacio Orive suggests that children's programming needed something with the cost-effectiveness of Japanese animation but done as live-action.

"This is why the subgenre of children and youth-oriented telenovelas is spreading like oil," he says. "They come out per season with 120-150 episodes, and it costs $40,000 to produce one hour. You cannot beat these guys."

Then there's the music.

In Spain, the first "Patito" album released by EMI Music Spain has sold 180,000 copies, making it a triple-platinum disc and the top-selling CD of Christmas 2009, far beyond "Hannah Montana" and "Camp Rock." The first "Patito" DVD sold out in Spain in two weeks.

" 'Patito' targets an attractive group for the music industry: tweens," says EMI product manager Javier Pintor, who orchestrated the Spain release. "It's a group that is passionate about music and wants to own the original. They don't want a pirated copy."

Just as telenovela fans enjoy the ongoing story lines, the genre's producers relish the properties' long lifespan.

Ideas del Sur and Televisa will decide this month whether to go forward first with a Spanish-language feature film -- with a possible release in Italy in February and a few weeks later in Spain, followed by the rest of the world -- then produce a third TV season of "Patito," or vice versa.

"We're analyzing our options; there are a few alternatives on the table how to best grow the brand," Ideas del Sur CEO Mariano Elizondo says. "This is a product from 2007 that is still generating revenue. The business is evolving.
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