Romance! Revenge! Telenovelas Draw U.S. Viewers

ByABC News

MIAMI, Jan. 15, 2006 — -- They are the hottest shows most Americans have never seen.

On the other hand, Hispanic families have been watching "novelas" for generations.

"Novelas are the bread and butter of Hispanic television, period," said Mimi Belt of the Spanish-language channel Telemundo.

Unlike American soap operas, novelas air in the evening and come to an end after a few months.

However, they share one thing with their American counterparts -- they are about beautiful people with big problems: One novela actress admitted to ABC News that her character is cheating on her husband. A male actor said, "I am just a killer."

Another actor tried to explain it all.

"It's just the way we are," he said. "What can we do? We're Latin."

"As a culture, we're very emotional -- and I know that's a generality, but it's true," said Belt of Telemundo. "We need to … believe that those folks on the screen are part of our household, and then you've got a hit."

Those hits now are drawing more and more of America's 41 million Hispanics -- including younger, bilingual viewers who could be watching the American networks.

Spanish broadcaster Univision regularly beats at least one of the U.S. networks in the ratings, according to numbers from Nielson Media Research. And on 22 nights last season, it came in first, thanks to its blockbuster novela, "Amor Real."

Such success has forced rival network Telemundo to step up the competition. It wants to tap the growing audience by tailoring novelas to Hispanics in the United States.

Instead of importing the shows from Latin America, Telemundo is building the sets and developing the talent right in Miami -- training its own crop of novela writers at a "soap school."

Jason Sting, a student there, said the huge appetite for the shows convinced him to change careers.

"Even at the bank I work at," he said, "I hear people [saying], 'Did you see the novela last night?' and, 'Did you hear what she did?' I'm almost floored that you know it's every day that people follow these things."

Now the American networks are finally taking notice: ABC, CBS and Fox all have begun developing their own novelas -- in English.

That means more romance -- and revenge -- for everyone.

ABC News Heather Cabot originally reported this story for "World News Tonight."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events