As American Soap Operas Bust, Telenovelas Boom in US

PHOTO: Blanca Soto arrives at the Premio Lo Nuestro a La Musica Latina at American Airlines Arena on February 16, 2012 in Miami, FL.
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Telenovelas, those drama-soaked, tear-filled roller coaster TV soap operas, were traditionally produced in Mexico, but Hispanic actors are increasingly flocking to sunny Florida to film them.

In fact, Miami is being called the new Latin Tinseltown.

"A lot of them wanted to get away from the violence in their countries of origin -- the Colombians, the Mexicans -- and they found jobs [in Miami]," said Maria Morales, the executive editor of People en Espanol. "Just made sense. It was a marriage of opportunity with demand."

Former Miss Mexico World Blanco Soto, who stars in the hit telenovela "El Talisman," is immediately recognized in Miami these days and gets mobbed by fans at restaurants and coffee shops. Soto, 33, helped catapult the previous show she starred in, "Eva Luna," into one of the most successful and profitable telenovelas ever.

In the past, telenovela stars could not get the kind of traction in the U.S. that they had in Latin America, but demographics in this country are changing. Spanish speakers are the fastest growing population in the United States, with a burgeoning market of second and third generation Hispanic viewers.

Univision, which broadcasts "El Talisman," "Eva Luna" and many other popular telenovelas, is now the fourth top network in the U.S. -- about 10 million people watched the "Eva Luna" finale last April. Morales said stories about telenovela stars comprise up to 50 percent of People en Espanol, which has a circulation of 6.5 million, compared to the roughly 3.5 million circulation of the English-language version of People.

And increasingly the slap-happy, sometimes sappy, and always dramatic world of Telenovelas is becoming a proving ground of sorts for Latin stars eager to make the jump into English language TV. Before Colombian-born Sofia Vergara played for laughs as Gloria on "Modern Family," she was the sultry Leonora on "Burning for Revenge." And before William Levy's mainstream breakthrough on "Dancing With the Stars," the Cuban native glowered as Alejandro on "Love Spell."

And when fans like you in this world, they really, really like you, Morales said.

"People don't really fall in love, at least in our market, with the person that you're playing on screen," Morales said. "They literally will transcend that screen and fall in love with you. That's why, William Levy, they know his name. They will follow him and vote for him on 'Dancing with the Stars.'"

While American soap operas such as "All My Children" and "One Life to Live" have been canceled, telenovelas have figured out how to stay on top in the ratings. These shows have been able to stay profitable, in part, because of their breakneck pace of production. Soto said she shoots 40 scenes per day on "El Talisman."

"It's like one, one, one, another. Cry. In this one you don't cry. Now you're laughing. Now you're happy. Getting engaged. They are killing you. You're sick," she said. "It's great. It's crazy, the continuity, the emotion."

"El Talisman" airs five nights a week for 24 weeks, all on a tiny budget of $120,000 per episode, compared to its English-language soap opera counterparts, which can run up to $2 million per episode.

Another major difference between American and Spanish soaps is that telenovela writers change scripts based on minute-to-minute viewer feedback, which can be tough for the actors.

"[The viewers] used to say I didn't cry enough," Soto said. "They wanted more drama, but that's not my fault, but when they want some change we just make the changes."

The ability to respond to viewer feedback is precisely one of the reasons telenovelas are still going strong. Becky Villaescusa of Latin World Entertainment, one of the biggest talent agencies for Hispanic actors in the U.S., said the success of telenovelas has helped pave the way for their stars to cross over into other media.

"They need to be talented, they need to be bilingual, bicultural," Villaescusa said. "Those are the most important things."

And the opportunities for talent to get noticed in the general market are booming. Soto said she recently saw herself on the cover of a gossip magazine in Hungary and her "Eva Luna" series is being dubbed into dozen of languages for viewers in Europe and Asia.

"It's weird because I see myself talking in Thai and Chinese," she said, laughing.

Sofia Vergara was just 17 when landed her first TV spot -- a Pepsi ad in Latin America. Now, the 39-year-old actress is the international face of Diet Pepsi, Burger King and K-Mart. Morales said the audience responds when their favorite stars can make an "intimate connection" to them.

"For us they're rock stars," she said. "And when people in Hollywood see 50 million Hispanic [viewers] and the money we bring to the table and the fact that they are extremely loyal to the talent that captures their heart, they'll remember that."

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