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Former Telenovela Actress Changed Landscape Of Spanish-Language TV

Sep 5, 2016
Originally published on September 5, 2016 10:27 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to hear now how the TV network Telemundo went from not successful to the most-watched Spanish language network in the U.S. Here's what it took - primetime programs starring anti-heroes, villains with depth who are sympathetic. It was a big change from the cardboard cutout villains of the standard telenovela or soap operas which had come before. For NPR's Planet Money, Jasmine Garsd went to Miami to find out how it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MARIMAR" THEME SONG)

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: That's the theme song to a telenovela I grew up on. It's called "Marimar."

(SOUNDBITE OF "MARIMAR" THEME SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Marimar.

GARSD: It's a classic storyline - poor girl with a heart of gold...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARIMAR")

THALIA: (As Marimar, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Meets wealthy, impossibly handsome man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARIMAR")

EDUARDO CAPETILLO: (As Sergio, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He shuns her at first, but viewers knew how this was going to end.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPOSITION, "WEDDING MARCH")

GARSD: In the U.S., "Marimar" was broadcast on Univision, the longstanding king of Hispanic media. Their formula was simple - rebroadcast telenovelas, mostly from Mexico. Telemundo, on the other hand, went from one financial crisis to the next. They went bankrupt in the '90s, and they were acquired by NBC. And for decades, their programming was uneven. Then, in 2011, they produced "La Reina Del Sur," the queen of the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LA REINA DEL SUR" THEME SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: It's the story of Teresa Mendoza, a poor Mexican girl who falls in love with a drug runner. But he gets killed in the very first episode, and she gets raped by his rival. Teresa Mendoza spends the rest of the telenovela avenging him and becoming one of the world's most powerful drug lords. She was like no female protagonist the genre had ever seen. Perla Farias was, at the time, the VP for telenovela development.

PERLA FARIAS: She killed people. She was a lesbian in the character. I mean, imagine coming from our telenovela, our classical telenovelas. It was a big risk.

GARSD: Telemundo spent more money than they had ever before. They hired Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who is gorgeous, but not in the soft, misty-eyed way of so many telenovela heroines. She plays the role with a fierceness that would make Tony Soprano cower, like in this clip, where she's giving orders to her foot soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LA REINA DEL SUR")

KATE DEL CASTILLO: (As Teresa Mendoza, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "The operation is going to be tonight at midnight," she commands. With 2.4 million viewers, "La Reina Del Sur" broke Telemundo's records for a premiere. By the second month, it was beating Univision and English-language stations in major markets. Farias says the success shows that Spanish-speaking audiences were ready to embrace more complex characters.

FARIAS: They are villains, but they're not absolutely villains. They're humans.

GARSD: In other words, they're anti-heroes. Nowadays, Telemundo's winning primetime is a lot of anti-heroes. "El Senor De Los Cielos" is a show about a poor man's rise to drug lord, and "Senora Acero" is about a woman who works as a human smuggler on the U.S.-Mexico border. Luis Silberwasser is the president of Telemundo, and he says the network is catering to a young Latino audience that is completely bicultural.

LUIS SILBERWASSER: They're living in this country. They're living in the United States, so they may watch Telemundo. They may watch other Spanish channels. But they were - they're also influenced by what's happening in English-language television.

GARSD: It's just common sense, he says. Why wouldn't a Spanish-language network give its audience what other networks succeeded with? Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.