Never Forget You

The Americanization of the telenovela: in Spanish, in Miami

It should come as no surprise that at a recent convention of television programmers in Las Vegas, Bob Cook, president of Twentieth Television, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, unveiled plans to produce an English-language telenovela called Desire that will air five days a week on UPN this summer.

Spanish-language networks' attempts to seduce more Hispanic viewers with U.S.-style sitcoms and dramas have been massive failures. In 1998, executives at Telemundo, then owned by Sony, eliminated novelas from the prime-time lineup. They replaced them with Reyes y Reys, inspired by Starsky and Hutch, and Angeles, inspired by Charlie's Angels. The Miami-based network's audience declined by a third in nine months, to less than eight percent of Spanish-speaking viewers.

When NBC Universal acquired Telemundo in 2002, the company immediately demanded a full prime-time lineup of syndicated novelas. After airing Brazilian shows dubbed into Spanish without a great change in ratings, the network teamed with Colombian production company RTI to make the shows in Miami. Telemundo/RTI now produces the bulk of its own telenovela programming, much of it from studios in Hialeah.

Arquímedes Rivero in his office
Arquímedes Rivero in his office

Dulce Terán, the Venezuelan producer of Olvidarte Jamás, is not surprised at the Hispanic market's loyalty to the genre. "There's a captive audience in the United States that will always be very, very, very Latino. For now, at least, you'll always have the mamás, the abuelitas, and young people whose family has instilled them with a love for their roots. In the U.S., telenovelas are the way to keep yourself welded to your traditions. It's the way you remember your country, and your language."

Venevision Productions' studios, located just east of the Palmetto Expressway on NW 72nd Street, are unremarkable from the outside, another windowless concrete box in a pedestrian-unfriendly, treeless sea of sunbleached buildings. The only defining features are the six or seven enormous satellite dishes in front that blossom like mutant mushrooms.

The interior, saturated with Venevision's Fred Perry-ish logo of a golden V hovering over laurel branches, seems very new. There is a sense of unused space, of empty desks and editing studios waiting quietly to be filled.

Administrative offices and business-casual attire dominate upstairs; enormous sound stages and technical facilities occupy the lower level. If employees at Venevision speak English, they rarely use it. The wisps of conversations overheard in the hall are all in Spanish. The kitchenettes feature both standard office coffee urns and espresso makers. Meals are catered on-site.

Each telenovela has a crew of about 100 people and a cast of about 20. An entire 120-episode telenovela is produced, on average, for around eight million dollars. By comparison, Forbes estimates the median half-hour U.S. sitcom costs $1.3 million per episode.

Because of the low production costs and fast pace, the atmosphere on a set buzzes with a sort of do-it-yourself, low-budget informality. Crews are accustomed to creative improvisation: a patch of rooftop becomes a makeshift prison yard; an ill-fitting shirt is cinched with a safety pin. Dulce Terán, producer of Olvidarte Jamás, says the cast and crew working on the show became extremely close to each other and to the material they produced. She saw grown men shed tears during the filming of particularly moving scenes.

The cast and crew produced roughly one episode every weekday for six months, many working ten-hour days. It's an astonishing pace, but routine for the industry. When Olvidarte Jamás ends, work will begin immediately on the next, as yet unnamed, project.

Although a few employees and actors in Olvidarte Jamás are bilingual, most are not, and most left their native countries to work in Miami — many for the first time. Terán explains that Venevision provides newcomers with housing and transportation. Production administrator Zulma Vargas teaches them about taxes, and lawyer Maite Miranda organizes their immigration paperwork. The fact that many are new to South Florida brings the cast and crew together. "I think that people are very happy to be here, because almost everyone's country is in crisis," says Terán. "It's the case in Venezuela, it's the case in Colombia — with the narcotrafficking and insecurity — and in Peru too. All of our countries are in crisis."

The sound stage is cavernous. Only the sets being used on any given day are lit; the rest gather dust in an eerie, dim light. Production assistants, conscious of making noise, cautiously navigate extension cords on tiptoe. A walk through passages between sets is a tour of everyday life on Olvidarte Jamás: There's Don Gregorio Montero's office with a heavy wooden desk. There is his opulent bedroom. There — lit for later filming — is a padded cell. (Who ends up in that?) There is the majestic, Gone with the Wind-inspired staircase.

On January 10 in the early afternoon, at least three scenes are being shot in or around the production facility. The director responsible for interior scenes (those shot in the studio) is a cheery Spaniard named Tito Rojas. He watches the action and provides direction from the vantage point of a command center with small monitors inset into carpeted walls. Here he can view various scenes at once without having to be physically present on each set.

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