Never Forget You

The Americanization of the telenovela: in Spanish, in Miami

Isabel's plans have gone horribly awry. The buxom brunet, her frosty highlighted hair in gravity-defying layers, had one mission: Seduce and marry the sweetly naive Alejandro, heir to his grandfather's highly profitable ranch. Now she listens, horrified, as the earnest young man, brown eyes shining with sincere concern, reveals what has been so difficult to admit.

He does not love her. The engagement is off.

Isabel hurls a Spanish insult at her astonished lover's face, along with the remnants of her cocktail before smashing the glass against the floor and fleeing in tears.

Guillermo Murray (as Gregorio Montero) and Carmen D. Rodríguez (as Crista) on the set of Olvidarte Jamás
PHOTOS COURTESY OF VENEVISION
Guillermo Murray (as Gregorio Montero) and Carmen D. Rodríguez (as Crista) on the set of Olvidarte Jamás
Sebastian Ligarde and Sonya Smith watch a playback from a 
scene together
Sebastian Ligarde and Sonya Smith watch a playback from a scene together

A short while later, in a bland hotel room, Isabel weeps with anxiety.

"I have to make Alejandro marry me," she cries en español. She picks up the phone, fingers shaking, and dials her friend Patricio, who is privy to her gold-digging.

"Patricio, help me," she sobs, nearly hyperventilating.

"Where are you?" he demands.

"Estoy en el Marriott en Fort Lauderdale."

"Dónde?" he asks again.

She repeats, "El Marriott. En Fort Lauderdale."

Fort Lauderdale? Not Caracas? Not Mexico City? People look and talk like that in Fort Lauderdale?

It is only a matter of moments before Patricio bursts through the door, breathless and wild-eyed. He has a head of frosty highlights that competes with Isabel's. His spray-tan is a shade darker, but the two make a lovely couple. Their boldly colored wardrobe is a sign that their motives are less than pure. (Heroes and heroines prefer pastels.)

"I don't know what to do," Isabel wails.

"I do," says Patricio, reining her in for a kiss.

It's just another day for the characters of Olvidarte Jamás (Never Forget You), a popular daytime telenovela that airs on Univision at 1:00 p.m. weekdays. In it — and others on the Spanish-language network — you can get a good dose of romance and revenge, and you're likely to find shots of Miami's neon-lit skyline interspersed with horses and swarthy cowboys wearing chaps. You might learn, if you did not previously suspect it, that just outside the city limits, extended families and their loyal servants traverse sprawling oligarchic ranches while engaged in tangled alliances of doomed love or wicked vengeance. Sometimes they leave their estates and find themselves at, say, an Outback Steakhouse.

Last year, eight 120- to 250-episode telenovelas were filmed in Miami-Dade County. The business brought an estimated $28 million to the local economy, according to Jeff Peel at the Miami-Dade Mayor's Office of Film and Entertainment. The city has long been a production center for talk shows and the home base for number-two Spanish network Telemundo, but the telenovela — the backbone of Spanish-language television — has flourished here only in the past three years.

In 2003 Telemundo opened a 55,000-square-foot production studio in Hialeah. A year later Venevision, a Caracas-based firm that produces daytime soap operas for the U.S. market, opened a full-scale novela production studio in Doral.

The reasons for Miami's prominence are numerous: Venezuela, a hotbed of telenovela production just a few hundred miles away, is embroiled in political instability; the Magic City has lots of Spanish-speaking workers with experience in television; and compared to some major U.S. cities, like Los Angeles, producing here is cheap.

It may also be that American television executives have finally noticed something much of the world already knows: Telenovelas might be sappy, but they generate die-hard audience loyalty. And they are comparatively inexpensive: A 120-episode telenovela can be produced for about eight million dollars, less than what the cast of Friends used to earn for two half-hour episodes. Additionally their universal story lines make them prime candidates for dubbing and syndication, which means more opportunity for profit. Latin soap operas are among the fastest-growing and most profitable segments of the U.S. television market, now worth two billion dollars. And Miami is poised to profit.


It's Tuesday, January 10, and Arquímedes Rivero, executive telenovela director and creative don of Venevision Productions, is promoting his company's latest product, which premiered on Univision the previous day. "We have a lot of hope for Olvidarte Jamás, because this novela has such a special setting — this mix between Mexican ranch and Florida hacienda, no?"

Dressed in a dark green suit and an Italian button-down shirt, Rivero speaks a rapid, cutting Spanish. The small, liver-spotted 75-year-old is a legend in the business, the unlikely progenitor of dozens of love triangles (actually more like love dodecahedrons) that have been syndicated around the world. On dusty television screens in locales as far-flung as China and Poland, protagonistas are shedding jewellike, soft-focus tears manufactured wholesale according to this pleasant elderly gentleman's calculated and shrewd touch.

Rivero works in Doral in a windowless office whose walls engage in a veritable battle of the sexes: The longer sides of the room's rectangle are plastered with dozens of cut-out magazine photos of telenovela stars whom the unassuming creative mogul discovered in castings or on the street. Women smile on one side and men smolder on the other. The graying, straight-faced executive basks in the crossfire of come-hither glances and scornful smirks. (And serious silicone — it can't be mere coincidence that the man shares a name with the Greek mathematician who discovered the principle of buoyancy.)

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