Right off the bat, I love serialized storytelling. It got ingrained with comic books, American soap operas, and music that tells a tale. It proves that the way everyone hangs onto shows like “Game of Thrones”, “Mad Men”, et al., I’m not alone in this.
When I took a Spanish class in 1981, I immediately got hooked on another style of serialized storytelling: the telenovela.
Telenovelas are soap operas from Latin America that are told in story arcs -a beginning, a middle and an end- and runs for weeks at a time. Back in 1981, there was only Spanish International Network (SIN), now Univision. They dominated Spanish-language television for a long time. The first telenovela I got addicted to was “Tal Como Somos”, because it was a crime drama that had the feel of my other favorite one “The Edge of Night”. They even spray-painted a few of the titles on walls like graffiti.
But something was looming that threatened Univision’s dominance. A small station in Puerto Rico that would soon become its’ biggest rival.
WKAQ-TV started out small and then gained ground to become Telemundo. And over time, it started making inroads to the Spanish-speaking market.
First, they began airing programming that targeted the Hispanic/Latino markets here. Then they had their own studios which original programming would be created and aired. Then NBC bought them out and they launched another network called mun2, gearing toward the younger demographic. With the Comcast buyout of NBC, they started gaining ground and it continues. Don Francisco, who helmed “Sabado Gigante” for a whopping 53 years returned to television (and Telemundo) with a new show “Don Francisco Te Invita”.
But the lifeblood of both networks are its telenovelas. And the diffrences are striking.
The last time I got into a telenovela on Univision was “Fuego en el Sangre” (“Fire in the Blood”). Before that it was “Dos Mujeres Un Camino” (“Two Women, One Road”). The former was twisted and crazy to watch thanks to the representation of a man in black dressed in a serape carrying a scythe that walked into scenes just before certain characters were about to meet certain doom-and it was great to watch some of the special effects and see if they can be done in After Effects. The latter had Erik Estrada that was good in its scope but his appearances were limited and it featured the members of the band Bronco in parts of the show. The misfire happened during the show’s run, they swapped themes twice-the intro was the campy and set the tone of the series, while the outro was a ballad by Bronco.
Then my friend introduced me to “La Reina Del Sur” (“Queen of the South”) with Kate Del Castillo. The story moved fast and rarely hit slow spots. The story of a female drug lord was wilder and exciting. So shortly afterwards, Telemundo introduced “El Señor De Los Cielos” (“The Lord of the Skies”) and the supernatural “En Otra Piel” (“In Another Skin” -though the closed captions say “Part of Me”).
Telemundo showed a different side of the telenovela coin: not everything is based around a female trying to overcome adversity who lives out in the country or comes in from the country to the city. Granted, the stories range from criminal activity to simple complicated love stories, but the key difference is ownership and less importing.
Telemundo is owned by Comcast under NBC Universal Telemundo Enterprises. Even before the Comcast buyout of NBC, the network has been doing its’ own novelas via complete ownership or joint efforts. Univision has been importing from Latin America and the only one that they did was different was “Amas De Casa Desespradas” by Disney-ABC who sold the format of “Desperate Housewives” internationally. They didn’t own it. Also it gave Telemundo another network to show the Olympics. On the date of Super Bowl 50, mun2 became NBC Universo, gearing more towards Latinos in the States.
I think another factor is Univision doesn’t believe in “temporadas” (seasons) on some of their high rated serials and not order more. Granted, they did it with the kid-oriented “Carusel (Carousel)” and “Salud, Dinero Y Amor (Health, Money and Love”), but they only had two seasons apiece. They haven’t done it on any other serials.
Telemundo, on the other hand, is already barreling into an eighth season of “El Señor” and possibly adding a fourth one for “Señora Acero” and they continue to evolve.
Some complaints about the acting pool being so limited on the ‘novelas that many employ the same actors and actresses once one ends. Granted the American counterparts practice the same thing, but at one time there were as many as 20 soaps spread out between two coasts and they ran from a matter of months to years at a time. These days with only four soaps on the air, they had to adapt to the way cast members can jump from soap to soap. I also add to this the soap opera “Port Charles” which did escape the cancellation ax once. In order to save the show, it had to adopt a telenovela format. Production was shifted to some weeks on and some weeks off; the soap would still be called “Port Charles”, but each book had a name e.g. “Naked Eyes”, “Torn”, “The Gift”, etc.
Most recently, both Telemundo and Univision went head-to-head with novelas based around two late Latino performers and, for the first time, I had a hard time deciding which one to watch. On Univision, it was one about Juan Gabriel; on Telemundo it was one about Celia Cruz. And I have said before, it was a long time trying to watch one or the other. Both were well-acted and covered their subject matters well.
But if Univision want to keep and expand their audience, they need a better way to present their logo for one which is serving them well. Their 4-color and the shows they present and making it 3-D is a great start and for me will take time to get used to. Telemundo made their current logo interactive and has two fonts families to complement it. Plus they don’t keep it their regular red color; it changes with whatever show they promote and lets out sparks, paint, water, fire, etc. when it comes to the beauty shot.
Second, they need a good gimmick for their new novelas before they premiere and can be run throughout the season of the show. They are playing catch up with Telemundo in making “mini-movie” promotions and they are great, but Telemundo made Tuesdays the night to debut new novelas, and made a promo when they are three (MarTres, a play on the Spanish word for “Tuedsay” and the number 3, indicates three new novelas are debuting).
Finally, if they want to get more of the English-speaking audience, they should close caption in English as well as Spanish. After watching “En Orta Piel” looking at the captions in English, I started understanding Spanish a little bit more. I’m a person who needs to see it and hear it before I get it. I figured it out when, as a kid, I was interested in the spinning earth on “As The World Turns”…drove my stepdad crazy until one day, he went back to his place and brought a world almanac and made the watching just the globe fun and interactive. Having the novelas closed-captioned in English is a good idea that should be kept.
I will never get tired of the novelas, because, like their American counterparts, they are so fun to watch.