Apr 30, 2007

A Telenovela's Soundtrack-Part I: Incidental Music

Music plays a huge role in telenovelas. Plots and characters are defined by the music that accompanies them. However, it's the incidental music the one that underscores every scene establishing its mood: romance, humor, suspense, etc. The incidental music also signals the transitions between scenes.

In this video Victor Escalona explains how incidental music works in a telenovela. He uses examples from Cosita Rica.

The video is in Spanish, but I think it isn't difficult to figure out what Mr. Escalona is saying.

Apr 29, 2007

Studying telenovelas

I use a theoretical tool--the Circuit of Culture (du Gay et al, 1997)--to organize my studies, in which I attempt to examine telenovelas from as many perspectives as possible. Below the Circuit of Culture of my study of Ciudad Bendita and the many methods I'm using:

When I'm studying a particular telenovela, it's important for me to soak myself in this particular text. I listen to its music, scan the entertainment press on a daily basis, and have daily e-mail exchanges and/or phone conversations with production team and audience members. I also like to have a visual image of my object of study. Here's my office bulletin board, where I can see at a glance the main characters, the daily ratings and the many triangles that conform Ciudad Bendita:

Understanding Telenovelas: Three Case Studies

To understand how the telenovela "works," I've conducted three comprehensive case studies which have one thing in common: the three telenovelas were written by Leonardo Padrón.

This author's telenovelas are particularly interesting to me because of the way he mixes melodrama, romance, humor and reality in his stories.

El País de las Mujeres (1999).- This telenovela allowed me to examine not only the telenovela genre, but also a society I know well, one in which women are oppressed in overt (machismo, marianismo, domestic violence and male infidelity) and subtle ways (a limiting definition of the feminine, a cultural obsession with physical beauty and the prevalence of Catholicism). El País de las Mujeres afforded me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of how Venezuelan women are socialized into their expected gender roles, and the role media play in this process.

Cosita Rica (2003-2004).- From September 2003 to August 2004, two melodramas threaded reality and fiction as they shared the heated and hypermobilized Venezuelan political stage: The rocky road to the recall referendum of President Hugo Chávez and the telenovela Cosita Rica. This television show, an intriguing example of the telenovela genre, was inextricably linked to Venezuelan reality. As Cosita Rica mirrored, and reflected on, the country’s political crisis, the telenovela became the epicenter in which media, culture and society evidenced the complexity of their articulations.

Ciudad Bendita (2006-2007).- What happens when a Venezuelan author writes a telenovela with the explicit purpose of critiquing Venezuelans’ vanity and obsession with beauty? How does the Venezuelan audience receive a telenovela in which the protagonists transgress the genre’s beauty code, (i.e., the female protagonist has a noticeable limp and the male protagonist is not considered handsome)? How do Venezuelans interpret storylines that criticize the national obsession with physical appearance, eternal youth, weight loss and plastic surgery?

Ciudad Bendita is my current study and obsession.

Apr 28, 2007

Nets Chart Different Courses To Succeed With Telenovelas

The following is one of two articles written by Luis Clemens for Multichannel News regarding telenovelas in the United States. In this one, Clemens focuses on the opposing strategies used by Univisión and Telemundo.

Nets Chart Different Courses To Succeed With Telenovelas
Univision Tangles With Televisa Over Fees, As Telemundo Looks In-House and to Mexico

By Luis Clemens -- Multichannel News, 10/16/2006

The fortunes of each Spanish-language broadcast network are largely defined by their telenovela strategy, and each major player has a distinct strategy with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Univision is by far the most successful telenovela programmer in the U.S. On any given week, at least 20 of the top 25 highest-rated shows are telenovela episodes. Typically, the network's lowest-rated primetime novela has more than double the audience of Telemundo's highest-rated telenovela. Univision's primetime dominance is overwhelming, even though Telemundo has posted 11 consecutive months of ratings gains.

But Univision's success has a soft underbelly: its dependence on Televisa for its successful slate of novelas.

“Right now, Univision cannot survive without Televisa's telenovelas,” said telenovela expert and University of Georgia associate professor Carolina Acosta-Alzuru.

What might happen to Univision without Televisa's telenovelas is more than a purely academic question.

In 1992, the two broadcasters signed a 25-year program-licensing agreement. Televisa says Univision has violated the conditions of the PLA and is aggressively pursuing legal redress in federal court. The growing mountain of complaints, counterclaims and amended counterclaims make clear the stakes of the dispute. Court-ordered arbitration sessions with a retired judge led nowhere. Both parties seem intent on an all-or-nothing legal battle.

Televisa's current management believes the fees set out in the PLA are laughably low — the agreement provides for payment of 15% of combined network time sales to Televisa. Univision has maintained the PLA is ironclad. Televisa collected over $100 million from Univision in 2005 for novelas and other programming. Univision earned $1.36 billion in broadcast revenue that same year. The case is scheduled to go to trial in June 2007.

Univision declined to answer questions about anything other than the ratings performance of La Fea Más Bella (The Prettiest Ugly Girl), which is currently the most popular telenovela. When asked what happens to Univision if they can no longer air Televisa telenovelas, a prominent Hispanic media buyer responded succinctly, “they're screwed.”

Concern about depending on outside program suppliers was part of what prompted Telemundo to pursue an in-house production strategy. Parent General Electric Co. has provided the funding for the expensive and long-term strategy.

“After three years of controlling our own destiny, the results are satisfactory. Our audience has doubled and our ratings are growing as fast as they can,” said Patricio Wills, head of production for Telemundo Studios. Ratings have increased significantly but from a low base and continue to pale in comparison to Univision's ratings. “One always wants the big goals to be met more quickly,” said Wills.

From the outset, the stated goal was not only to shift production in house but to focus production on the perceived needs of the U.S. Hispanic audience. Telemundo executives noted the production of “culturally relevant” telenovelas would differentiate them from Univision, which simply imported Televisa-produced Mexican novelas for a Mexican audience.

Telemundo executives have toned down talk of “culturally relevant” novelas. One particularly weak novela, La Ley del Silencio, was filmed in Dallas in 2005. “We are still able to address issues of interest to the U.S. Hispanic. That's our view of it. We don't want to overplay or exaggerate the U.S. domestic issue of location. To us, it is more what are the issues that interest the U.S. Hispanic,” said Telemundo senior executive president of network entertainment Ramón Escobar. “The novelas are originally made for the U.S. Hispanic. We are not making them in Mexico for anyone other than U.S. Hispanics.”

But Oswald Mendez, director of integrated communications at The Vidal Partnership, is skeptical. “Just because you have street signage in Miami and you may have some Spanglish in there and some U.S.-relevant issues, the novela is not necessarily for the U.S. Hispanic market,” he said. “What you are doing, which is a competitive advantage that you can claim is [that] we see it first. Not the imported product that gets seen first in Latin America and then comes here.”

Two-thirds of Telemundo's novelas are produced in Colombia and Mexico, mostly with foreign actors and actresses. Escobar cited the diversity of available location shoots. Cost is, no doubt, also a motivating factor.

Telemundo stressed that the writers of its novelas are Latinos. Some are graduates of the network's telenovela writing workshops, which are designed to build up the talent pipeline needed to keep the production of novelas going on a permanent basis. In order to support the hectic pace and finance the high cost of continuous production, Telemundo may have no financial option but to make most of its novelas abroad.

Furthermore, Hispanic audiences may very much want scenes of Latin America as escapist entertainment. Nostalgia, real and imagined, is part and parcel of telenovelas. Two-thirds of Hispanics are Mexican immigrants or their descendants. For the immigrants, seeing the programming of Mexican broadcaster Televisa reminds them of home and that clearly has some effect on their viewing preferences. “Telemundo is 'Mexicanizing' its telenovelas in order to compete,” said Acosta-Alzuru.

Because Televisa's novelas air first in Mexico before airing in the U.S. they generate a cross-border buzz, which boosts Univision's ratings.

Telemundo is seeking to create a similar phenomenon by heavily investing in production and distribution in Mexico. Telemundo has made a restricted investment in Palmas 26, a firm controlled by Mexico's Grupo Xtra, in an effort to create a broadcast network to compete against Televisa and TV Azteca on their home turf.

“The more people see Tele-mundo in Mexico, the more word-of-mouth that arrives in the U.S.,” said Escobar. “One of the biggest things that Univision has going for it is that people in Mexico say, 'Yeah, I saw [that novela] and this is what happens. That is a gap we are trying to close.”

Telemundo has significantly closed the gap with Televisa in terms of international syndication, though. The network's novelas compete effectively head-to-head against Televisa's novelas in much of Latin America. Tepuy International, the firm that handles international syndication, is headed by Marcos Santana, who is also Telemundo's lead development executive. Telemundo's success in selling its novelas overseas has been a largely unexpected bonus for the company.

“We may beat Televisa in Spain, we may beat Televisa in Argentina, we may beat Televisa in Colombia and Venezuela. But what about the U.S.? In the United States we are talking about a huge head start by the competition, a history and a loyalty and a tendency to view a certain product over the years, and that is going to take time to go up against,” said Escobar.

But Telemundo has already overtaken Univision in product placement and integration. Univision does not control the production of its novelas and cannot offer product placement to its advertisers, and that is a significant advantage for Telemundo.

“With Telemundo right now allowing you to use novelas more strategically and being able to have your brands written into a storyline and being able to create subplots online, I think it is going to take the genre to another level,” said Mendez.

Increased primetime ratings have, in turn, produced product placement opportunities that are much more attractive to advertisers. Telemundo remains a distant second to Univision and will for the foreseeable future. Unless, that is, Univision loses the right to run Televisa's telenovelas, in which case all bets are off. However, even a minor closing of the gap with Univision represents a sharp jump in revenues for Telemundo. Being a distant second in the growing Hispanic television market is still a lucrative position.

For that matter, even being a distant fourth in the Hispanic television market can be a modest moneymaking proposition as is the case with Azteca America.

That programmer relies on a string of mostly low-power station affiliates to broadcast its signal throughout the U.S. Its most successful programs to date have been Mexican soccer league matches and its reality talent show franchise La Academia. Its novelas have not done as well as might be expected given TV Azteca's successes with the genre in Mexico.

Still, Azteca America vice president of programming Joshua Mintz is making some big boasts. “I will go head-to-head with Univision. Azteca is super-competitive with its novellas,” he said. “In two years we will have a 10% audience share. It is the same as when TV Azteca competed against Televisa for the first time in Mexico.”

Univision-owned Telefutura's primetime strategy has always been one of counter-programming. The idea being to capture non-novela fans by offering them movies. Interestingly, though, Telefutura commissioned an original telenovela Por Amor from Colombian broadcaster Canal RCN. The novela began airing in September at 6 pm. “I think they are being smart and preparing for the worst-case scenario,” said Mendez.

The worst-case scenario being, of course, that the Univision-Televisa PLA is voided. Such an outcome seems unlikely but not impossible. Another possibility, pending the outcome of a case in Los Angeles Superior Court, is that Televisa will be able to transmit its novelas online. The PLA does not explicitly cover the possibility of Internet transmission as it was drafted in 1992. If Televisa wins that case, then, an industry source said Televisa “could do Univision a world of hurt”.

Many media buyers and media executives seemed surprised when told entire episodes of La Fea Más Bella are available online. Broadband video provider YouTube alone has some 1,200 clips related to the telenovela, which have collectively been viewed several hundred thousand times. Another site, www.lafeamasbellaonline.tk, features dozens of the novela's episodes.

For now, this hasn't seemed to dent broadcast viewership and the issue of pirated broadcast material online has not captured the full attention of the Hispanic television industry.

If nothing else, the presence of La Fea Más Bella episodes online indicates that there is a young and Web-savvy audience for Spanish-language telenovelas. Telemundo has placed highlights of its novelas on its Web site since 2003 with no apparent loss of viewership. Telemundo is adding Web-exclusive material related to novelas and garnering heavy traffic.

The viewing of Telemundo's material online along with the illicit downloads of La Fea Más Bella episodes added to the Nielsen ratings that show strong viewing by young Latinos indicate there is a future for telenovelas.

Acosta-Alzuru, who admitted she is a fan said, “The novela is part of our cultural roots. I don't know if telenovelas will be around in a hundred years. But, twenty years from now you will still be able to watch telenovelas on Univision and Telemundo.”

Source: Multichannel News
Luis Clemens is a freelance reporter covering Hispanic marketing and media for trade publications.

Plot Twists for Genre

This is the second article written by Luis Clemens for Multichannel News. This article published before U.S. made telenovelas aired and failed on MyNetworkTV, focuses on the difficulties of captivating the U.S. English speaking audience.

Plot Twists for Genre
Novelas Make English-Language Inroads, But Will Appeal Get Lost in Translation?

By Luis Clemens -- Multichannel News, 10/16/2006

Telenovelas are addictive, and millions of Latinos are hooked. But even as these popular soap operas continue to win over viewers and advertisers, the genre's forays onto English-language networks in the U.S. and new spins on a traditional format raise questions about the future shape of novelas.

“If you give it a chance, the telenovela will take you and grab you. The person who has not been hooked by a telenovela has not really sat down to watch one,” said associate professor Carolina Acosta-Alzuru of the University of Georgia. “It is an impressively attractive genre.”

Men and women, young and old, recent immigrants, as well as U.S.-born Hispanics all get their fix five nights a week on Spanish-language broadcasters. The buzz that gripped Hollywood about English-language novelas has died down, but MyNetwork TV now airs two novelas six nights a week. ABC last month began airing Ugly Betty, a weekly show based on a popular Colombian telenovela. And NBC is in the midst of casting an English-language version of a Telemundo-produced telenovela. As a result, Spanish and English novelas are attracting larger audiences.

La Fea Más Bella (The Prettiest Ugly Girl) is the most popular telenovela of the moment. The show is a Televisa-produced remake of successful Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, la Fea that aired on Telemundo and is also the basis of ABC's Ugly Betty sitcom, which has been strong for the network.

Emblematic of the cultural phenomenon the telenovela has become, La Fea Más Bella has even been at the center of a political controversy in Mexico.

The show began airing in the midst of Mexico's heated presidential campaign. In the final week before the July 2 vote, two characters made scripted on-air comments, which were widely interpreted as propaganda in support of the conservative candidate Felipe Calderon who won the election with a 0.6% margin of victory. The vote tally was hotly contested by the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and challenged in a federal election tribunal.

The tribunal rejected López Obrador's legal arguments, as well as the charge that La Fea provided support to his opponent.

But the controversy sparked widespread criticism and accusations of inappropriate political meddling by Televisa.

La Fea Más Bella and Televisa's other telenovelas air on Univision thanks to a 25-year program licensing agreement that is being challenged in federal court (see separate story, page 4A). Legal wrangling aside, La Fea Más Bella is the highest-rated primetime show, English or Spanish, among kids 2 to 11 and 12 to 17. It is watched by 2.5 million to 3 million Hispanics each night.

“Kicking ass,” is how Grupo Gallegos media director Ken Deutsch described its ratings performance. The novela began airing in the U.S. in April and will likely continue at least through the end of February.

La Fea Más Bella is currently among the top five novelas to have aired on the network, according to Univision senior vice president of research Ceril Shagrin. “Our audience loves it. They are addicted to it, they are watching it and it is appealing to everybody” she said.

The rest of Univision's telenovelas are strong performers, but it has been more than a year since the network has had a La Fea-style blockbuster. Shagrin attributed La Fea's success, in part, to the fact that “it is the kind of novela that families can watch together.”

Family viewing lies at the heart of the telenovela's success, said Oswald Mendez, director of integrated marketing at The Vidal Partnership.

“Guess what? The person that controls the television at that time is the mom, not the kids. 'You want to eat? You are going to watch my novela,'” Mendez said.

There is a greater willingness by Latino teenagers to sit and watch television with their parents, said Carl Kravetz president of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies.

“Interestingly enough, Latino teens don't think that hanging out with their parents is uncool,” Kravetz said. “If you are hanging out with parents who don't feel particularly comfortable in English and would rather watch television in Spanish, you are probably doing family viewing of telenovelas and that is not surprising to me ... The evidence is in the ratings.”

The ratings and the presence of all manner of Hispanic demographics make novelas attractive to major advertisers trying to reach a broad audience. “Nothing is more natural than having our advertising, having our message portrayed on the highest-rated programs in Hispanic media,” said Isaac Mizrahi, director of multicultural marketing at Sprint Nextel Corp.

“That's where our viewers are and that is a great place to reach them, and so that's where we look to place advertising,” said Deutsch. “They embrace it. They are engaged with it.”

Furthermore, the premium to advertise in Spanish-language primetime is lower than the premium that exists for the general market, so comparatively it is inexpensive. Even so, it is a tidy sum. Telenovelas represent at least a third of all broadcast revenue for the Spanish-language networks.

The question remains, though, how much money novelas will make for U.S. English-language broadcasters. At one point earlier this year, ABC, CBS, NBC and MyNetwork TV had all announced they were planning to develop telenovelas. It was a dramatic breakthrough coming after years of strong ratings performances by novelas in more than a hundred countries around the world. “The United States is behind in this area. It is practically the final frontier left for the telenovela to conquer,” said Acosta-Alzuru.

Desire and Fashion House were the first two novelas to begin airing on MyNetwork in early September. The one hour episodes run in primetime Monday to Friday with a weekly recap on Saturday. Both programs adhere to the telenovela format and tone. They focus on a love story and air for thirteen weeks. Each show is based on a Colombian telenovela.

Paul Buccieri, programming director for MyNetwork TV, takes much of the credit and depending on the results, perhaps eventually blame for the telenovela strategy. Buccieri got to know telenovelas through his Latina mother-in-law, who would translate as they watched novelas such as Rosalinda on Univision.

Buccieri acknowledged it is an “ambitious undertaking” and represents “a lot of real estate” but is convinced the format will work in the U.S. if given sufficient time.

After only a few weeks, the ratings and critical reception have been lackluster. One media buyer at a Hispanic agency called the MyNetwork TV novelas “baaaaad. Just because they copy our format doesn't mean it is good programming.”

Buccieri continues to meet with all the major Latin American production powerhouses and purchase additional telenovelas for translation and adaptation to the U.S. market. Meanwhile, NBC has begun casting Body of Desire, which is an English-language version of the Telemundo-produced Cuerpo de Deseo. And ABC has decided to put its own twist on the telenovela format.

In fact, what ABC has done with Ugly Betty is twist the format beyond recognition. Ugly Betty will air once a week and has, in effect, been converted into a serial comedy. Telenovela purists may view it as sacrilege, but the critical reception has been positive and the show has been given a prime slot on Thursday night. Kravetz is unfazed by Ugly Betty's transformation into a sitcom. He said, “We could very well be dabbling right now and trying to discover exactly what the hybrid is.”

A successful primetime hybrid on one of the major networks might add some cachet to telenovelas, which are often either scorned or taken for granted. “Anything that has mass appeal and is reaching the masses, even though it does very well, people look down on it,” said Deutsch.

Nonetheless, novelas are “a cornerstone of Spanish-language broadcasting,” said Randy Nonberg president and chief operating officer of the Una Vez Más station group of Azteca America affiliates.

In overall terms, the notion that novelas constitute a Hispanic programming cornerstone is unassailable. The proof is in the ratings and the ad sales. But there is a significant and influential minority of programmers strongly suggesting the future lies elsewhere.

The telenovela naysayers can be broadly divided into two camps: One group consists of executives who produce English-language programming for Latino youth, and the other consists of media executives of Spanish-language independents, as well as cable networks.

“I just don't think it is the only format,” said Cynthia Hudson-Fernandez, MegaTV vice president of programming. “There is a saturation of it in the Hispanic market.”

Hudson-Fernandez professes to love the telenovela format and, in fact, wrote an English-language novela almost a decade ago. She points to increasing ratings for her station and that of other stations that do not run novelas in primetime. The Hispanic market is growing sufficiently to support increased viewership of novelas and non-novela Spanish-language programming.

To the uninitiated, the appeal of the telenovela and the dependency it creates in millions of viewers can seem baffling. Storylines are implausible, characters can be cartoonish and the endings are invariably happy.

“The plot is always the same,” said Patricio Wills, head of development at Telemundo. “In the first three minutes of the first episode the viewer already knows the novela will end with that same couple kissing each other. A telenovela is all about a couple who wants to kiss and a scriptwriter who stands in their way for 150 episodes.”

And there are even fewer surprises for viewers of remakes such as La Fea Más Bella. Latino viewers know exactly what to expect of La Fea but still they turn out in large numbers each night. Why? Univision's Shagrin replied, “It is just the kind of story that captures the heart.”

Source: Multichannel News
Luis Clemens is a freelance reporter covering Hispanic marketing and media for trade publications.

In honor of Yanis Chimaras

At daybreak on April 24, actor Yanis Chimaras died, victim of Venezuela's worst problem: crime. Yanis was one of Venezuela's most versatile actors and a staple in the telenovelas written by Leonardo Padrón. Only hours before his death, he had taped the farewell scene of his character, Puro Mercado. However, on April 24, the cast of Ciudad Bendita had to overcome their immense grief to tape without him two sequences in which he was to appear.

Throughout the years I interviewed Yanis many times, and shared with him meals and the inevitable long waits that occur daily in the set of telenovelas. Our conversations were always pleasant, interesting and enlightening. He was well-read, insightful and generous as he shared his life experiences and wisdom. He was also a true champion of social justice.

In his long and prolific career, his character in Ciudad Bendita, Puro Mercado, stands out as one of the most well-known and successful. Yanis enjoyed playing Puro, and his pleasure showed on the television screen every night. He wrote a song, "El Chaca Chaca" for Puro, and the production team was wise enough to choose it as the character's theme song.

Yanis, thanks for everything you taught me about telenovelas and the actor's craft. Thanks for always being kind and funny. I will treasure the memory of our conversations.

More about Yanis Chimaras' death

"FIN"-- The End is the Beginning (April 25, 2007)

This blog begins at the end of Ciudad Bendita, my latest object of study. It's in Spanish, of course.

The word "FIN" on the television screen last Wednesday night marked the beginning of a new stage in my research that will be characterized by the analysis of the many pages of Ciudad Bendita's script, the audiovisual text of its aired episodes, transcripts of interviews with audience members, and hours and hours of interviews with everyone who worked in the production of Ciudad Bendita: writers, actors, producers, etc.

FIN also marks the end to some of the most intense months I've lived in my academic journey. Months in which I followed the conceptualization, production and reception of this successful telenovela. Months of many daily e-mails, phone conversations, chats and frequent trips to Caracas

As I write this first post, I realize that I'm not fully comfortable with the idea of writing in a public space, like a blog. But, I'm determined to do so with the hope that I will get more comfortable as I go.

My plan is to use this blog to share news about telenovelas, write about their many aspects, and also share my journey now that I enter full analysis mode regarding Ciudad Bendita.