Primetime in Spanish-language TV in the US has traditionally meant one thing: the lust, love, revenge and betrayal of the traditional telenovela. In an attempt to differentiate itself from chief rival Univision, Telemundo has tried to reimagine the Latin drama, giving it a local relevance, shorter runs, and tackling real-life issues in an grittier way than has been done before.
The recent Bajo el Mismo Cielo (Under the Same Sky) novella (pictured above) is a prime example of where Telemundo wants to take its 9pm dramas. Produced out of the network’s Miami studio complex, it follows an undocumented family who move from Mexico to Miami, with all of the trials and tribulations that brings.
“What we are trying to do is to be much more relevant to the Hispanic consumer that lives in the States,” says Luis Silberwasser (right), the former Discovery Networks International exec who has been president of Telemundo since August 2014. “And because we produce our own content we are better placed to do that. Perla Farias [vice president of the telenovela development at the studio] is always thinking about how can we make the story more relevant.”
Silberwasser is keenly aware Telemundo’s local production capability is one thing that sets it apart from Univision, which gets its scripted content direct from Mexican programming powerhouse Televisa. On his watch the studio has changed tack, and instead of churning out shows that look like those on Univision, has been tasked with delivering something new. Rather than play Univision at is own game and compete with the Televisa product head on, it has sought to offer an alternative.
“I think when you are a challenger like us, it is very hard, and Telemundo tried for a long time to do similar things to them and the track record was not that great,” Silberwasser says. “When there is no real alternative people will always go to the default option. The key decision we made was to try to do something different: different genres in some cases, different production values and numbers of episodes, and introducing the concept of a series and things that can come back year after year.”
Producing out of Miami means Telemundo can play with formats and programming in a way Univision cannot.
“Not only do we get all of the benefits of owning the rights, but the fact we can craft and create content based on what we know the Hispanic audience in the US wants gives us a leg up,” says Silberwasser.
The 10pm slot was the first in line for a change with the introduction of the ‘super series’, which are action novellas, often shot in Mexico and revolving around the drugs trade, that run to 60-80 episodes rather than the more traditional 120-160. The third season of super-series El Señor de los Cielos (Lord of the Skies) (pictured below) handed Telemundo the number one ratings position across all 18-34s in the US.
With 10pm given over to super series, Telemundo needed to apply the same thinking to other key parts of the grid. “We said, ‘we have a good thing at 10, so the challenge is what do we do at 8pm and 9pm’,” Silberwasser says. “Based on two pillars, original content and innovation, we knew what we were going to do had to feel and look different to what the competition is doing.”
Bajo el Mismo Cielo will usher in more 9pm novellas with themes designed to resonate with Spanish speakers in the US. “Bajo El Mismo Cielo teaches us a lot,” Silberwasser says. “It shows us that we can be more local, and take more risks with local stories. In the beginning we were concerned it might be too close for comfort, too real for the Hispanic viewers, but it wasn’t.”
The idea for 8pm is to have something lighter, so Telemundo will programme the slot with two types of show: musical biography-dramas and romantic comedies. Celia (pictured below) fits the former category, telling the life story of Celia Cruz, a Cuban singer known as the ‘Queen of Salsa’. These shows will run to between 80 and 100 eps, shorter than a traditional novella.
The overall 2015 primetime ratings were up double-digit, and Silberwasser says that advertisers are responding to the effort to differentiate Telemundo.
“There is tremendous interest from advertisers in terms of what we are doing because the ratings are there, but it is also conceptually strong,” says Silberwasser. “We have super series that come back in seasons, are shorter and more action-packed, and these are concepts the advertisers are very familiar with. It’s what they see from English-language television. Then we bring drama and music [at 8pm] – and they know what is happening with a show like [Fox’s big-rating hip-hop drama] Empire – and we can tie ourselves to that.”
If the Telemundo scheduling and line-up is starting to look more contemporary, and little more like that of one of the English broadcasters, will it make the move to providing its increasingly bilingual audience with English-language programming? Not any time soon.
“Most of our viewers are Spanish-dominant and we will stick to what we know how to do best,” says Silberwasser. “More bilinguals are coming to Telemundo than before, but they are comfortable watching our super series and content in Spanish; they are not asking for it in English. We won’t be afraid if, in our super series or novellas, someone says something in English because they are in character – that’s OK and people can deal with that, whereas maybe five years ago it would have been heresy.”
If the focus is on original drama in the week, international content has a place during Telemundo’s Sunday primetime schedule, where La Voz Kids (The Voice Kids) is on air and the first version of Big Brother for US Hispanics, Gran Hermano, plays.
Silberwasser says the focus with originals “is on scripted, and with [entertainment] we rely on third parties and international producers”.
“It is working and we are happy with that,” he adds. “It brings credibility, reduces risk and the advertising community loves it because they know the name of the show. It’s an easier sell than a completely new format.”
The gaps on Sundays are for another child-related entertainment show, or a dancing format. “We’re committed to singing with La Voz Kids, and kids in general, and have been looking to see if there are any other formats where we can do something with them,” Silberwasser says. “We’ll see how Big Brother evolves, that’s a different format for us. I would say other elements we are interested in are either more variety/reality, or something with more dancing that opens up that genre for us.”
Saturdays are tough with Univision’s Sábado Gigante (Giant Saturday) having dominated the ratings for 50 years. The other key challenges are getting the US election coverage right for the Hispanic viewers and, with the Olympics, Confederation Cup and World Cup in the offing, reinventing sports coverage for Latinos.
The American election will be centre stage on Telemundo, not least because issues around immigration from Mexico to the US are a political battleground. In keeping with doing something different to Univision, which is widely seen as close to the Democrats, Telemundo’s #YODECIDO (I Decide) initiative is a clear attempt to underline its impartiality. “We want to be more objective, to give the facts and interview both sides of the aisle, and let the viewers decide,” Silberwasser says.
The election plans tie into the strategy the network boss has set out of offering an alternative, rather than copying its chief rival.
“Sometimes we will do it really well and win and sometimes we won’t, but the investment in the studio, the writers and original content is something that will really differentiate us,” Silberwasser says. “Why should we have a studio and writers and producers to do the same thing the competition do – that doesn’t make sense.”