Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ugly Betty Heads North

THE POWER OF THE TELENOVELA FORM PROPELS IT TO HOLLYWOOD.


Telenovelas are big news around the world, particularly those originating in soap opera-obsessed Latin America. The telenovela Yo Soy Betty La Fea has been such a hit in Colombia that something like 70 countries’ TV producers have adapted its plotline—a plain-looking woman navigates intrigues in a high-powered fashion house—for their own audiences.

There have been Betty knock-offs in India, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia, Israel and Germany—and now Hollywood’s finally in the soap-opera game with Ugly Betty, where America Ferrera plays Betty Suarez, secretary of (and ally to) a fashion-magazine chief.

Along with Desire, Betty is the first in an anticipated wave of American-made telenovelas—or is it? NPR’s Morning Edition raised the issues of telenovelas’ production costs and network skittishness about moving from weekly broadcasts to dailies, and according to the Ugly Betty Wikipedia entry, standard hour-long weekly broadcasts are what viewers will see this fall. ABC only ordered 13 episodes of Ugly Betty, where the telenovela standard is 180 (which fits nicely as daily broadcasts for half a year.)

Given the competition from other forms of media, it’s no wonder ABC is giving the loyalty-rich telenovela form a go, particularly as it watches the U.S. Latin American population grow in size and wealth. It’s also smart to let Ferrara’s character keep a Latin surname—but to capture the telenovela magic, ABC may just have to swallow hard next season and write a check to produce half a year’s worth of episodes at once.

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