Jun 18, 2007
Remakes a la U.S.A.
What happens when remakes are produced in English and geared towards the U.S. general public? (not only geared toward Latinos)
A year ago, U.S. general and trade publications announced with a mix of curiosity and expectation that telenovelas had finally arrived to the U.S.: Newsweek, Broadcasting & Cable, Time, Multichannel News.
MyNetwork TV promoted its new productions Desire and Fashion House, based on Colombian telenovela scripts. And ABC was ready to launch in the upcoming Fall season Ugly Betty, based on (also Colombian) Yo soy Betty, la Fea.
A year later the telenovela landscape in the U.S. is, seemingly, a paradox. On the one hand, we can't find telenovelas in MyNetwork TV (Variety). On the other hand, Ugly Betty is a certified television phenomenon. Acclaimed by critics and audiences, the show has garnered some of the most prestigious awards in television, including a Golden Globe and a Peabody.
What are the reasons for this disparity in the reception of MyNetwork TV telenovelas and Ugly Betty?
Possibly the following:
1.- Because the press presented MyNetwork TV telenovelas as "over the top melodramas" closely related to soap operas, these shows were perceived by the non-Latino U.S. audience as "trash TV". This isn't surprising since that's the way soap operas are depicted in the mainstream discourse, even though some of today's television hits, like Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy have a high dose of melodrama.
2.- What MyNetwork TV presented us as "telenovelas" was really the network's executives and producers interpretation of the Latin American genre. Therefore, these productions included characters and situations that lacked the flavor of telenovelas. Hence, the Latino audience didn't "feel" they were telenovelas and wasn't attracted to them at all.
3.- In contrast, Ugly Betty isn't really a telenovela. It's more of a hybrid between two television genres that Americans (and everyone who watches U.S.-made TV) know well: The sitcom and the series (with its 1-hour format, regimented by the "season" concept, prevalent in U.S. television). Therefore, Ugly Betty's format felt familiar to the U.S. audience, (which generally doesn't know what a telenovela is, and/or despises the Latin American genre).
4.- Ugly Betty also benefitted from being preceded by the success of the film The Devil Wears Prada, which has striking similarities with Ugly Betty.
5.- With very few exceptions, the casts of MyNetwork TV "telenovelas" were conformed by actors perceived as "second class." While the cast of Ugly Betty showcased talent. In particular, protagonist América Ferrera is a gifted actor who had already demonstrated her talent in the excellent Real Women Have Curves.
What will happen now that NBC has acquired the rights for Colombian mini-telenovela Sin Tetas no hay Paraíso (Without Breasts there is no Paradise) (video), based on its namesake novel written by Gustavo Bolívar? Will it become another one-hour, once-a-week sitcom/series like ABC's Betty?
Most probably, since both were acquired and re-conceptualized for the U.S. market by Ben Silverman.
In sum, even though telenovelas are watched in over 130 countries, they haven't been able to attract the U.S. English-speaking audience. So far, this public hasn't have access to real telenovelas, only to remakes that change their essence. We don't know yet if one day the U.S. will watch telenovelas. In this sense, this public is still one of the last frontiers the telenovela hasn't been able to conquer.
PS: Further questions I ask myself:
1.- Why are U.S. television executives so attracted to the stories written by Colombian authors?
2.- Why are Mexican executives so attracted to remaking Colombian and Argentinean telenovelas?
3.-Why aren't Brazilian and Venezuelan telenovelas as attractive for remakes?