Latin melodrama eyes Asia

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Pasión de Gavilanes is a classic Latin American soap opera featuring star-crossed lovers, improbable plot twists and all the mascara melodrama for which the genre of such telenovelas is famous. In recent years it has drawn top ratings from Mexico City to Madrid. This season, it is airing on broadcast television in South Korea.

The Korean move is further evidence of the globalisation of the television market, in which formats and programmes are flowing across borders as never before. For Telemundo, the Spanish language broadcaster that produced Pasión de Gavilanes, it signals a burgeoning appetite in Asia for its distinctly Latin fare.

Telemundo has two telenovelas scheduled to debut on China Central Television, three in Malaysia and two each in India and Indonesia, among others. The company plans to open an office in Tokyo this year. “It woke up like a monster,” Marcos Santana, president of Telemundo International, says of the market. Overall, Mr Santana is betting that Asia will contribute 20 per cent of the company’s international revenues this year – double the level in 2007.

Telemundo is hoping those sales will validate an ambitious strategy it embarked on five years ago to make its own programming. At a cost of “hundreds of millions of dollars”, according to its president, Don Browne, the broadcaster has become the world’s second largest provider of Spanish language content after Mexico’s Televisa.

Now, the network needs to earn back its investment, both by improving its ratings in the US and reselling its programmes in overseas markets.

If it pays off, it would mark a big turnaround for Telemundo. The network has been an underachiever for much of its existence, continually changing strategy in the hope of catching up with Univision, which dominates the market for Spanish language television in the US.

Six years ago, NBC Universal paid $2.7bn (£1.38bn) for Telemundo in an effort to cash in on the growth of the US Hispanic population. Yet Telemundo, even with the demographic winds at its back, continued to struggle.

“Once they got it, they realised that it wasn’t the company they thought,” says Mr Browne, who became president in 2005. The network’s biggest problem, he decided, was the poor quality of its telenovelas, which are the most popular programmes for Spanish-language viewers.

Thanks to an exclusive contract with Televisa, Univision had access to the world’s best telenovelas. Like an old Hollywood studio, Televisa has locked up much of the best talent and churns out hits with factory-like efficiency. Telemundo was forced to buy the scraps from other producers in Colombia and Brazil.

“It became clear to us that the only way we could compete was not by relying on other people but to begin producing ourselves,” Mr Browne says.

With the backing of General Electric, which owns NBC Universal, Telemundo took over a 100,000 square foot studio near Miami and another in Mexico City. To develop its own talent, it partnered with a Miami community college to create a school to teach actors and writers the demands of the genre.

“A telenovela is the story of a couple in love and the writer who tries to keep them from kissing over the course of 120 episodes,” Mr Santana says. Their roots are believed to go back to 19th century, where workers in Cuban cigar factories would read serialised love stories aloud to each other to make the day go faster.

Gavilanes, which debuted in 2003, was one of Telemundo’s first big hits. “It travelled everywhere,” Mr Browne recalls. It was followed by El Cuerpo del Deseo in 2005 and then last year’s Zorro, a co-production with Sony.

Asian markets that were traditionally inhospitable to foreign content have finally begun to open their doors. Networks have proliferated in the region, meaning more schedule slots to fill. Culture is also a factor.

“These are countries that share a lot of the same cultural values and realities,” Mr Santana says. “If it works in Latin America, it works in Asia.”

But while the genre’s aspirational and romantic themes may be universal, some things are lost in translation. In order to comply with Chinese government restrictions on foreign media, the typical telenovela must be cut from 120 episodes or more to as few as 30, typically by severe editing or splitting into shorter series.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia and Indonesia, the payoff kiss that normally rewards viewers who have faithfully tuned into a novela for the duration tends to be edited out because of cultural sensitivities. Instead, the camera will often swing to footage of birds in a tree.

Judging by Telemundo’s recent sales, the viewers seem quite happy to let their imaginations do the rest.

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