Prime-Time Page Turners

By Vanessa de la Torre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2005

Telenovelas come and go.

Unlike American soap operas, which can drag on for decades, the Spanish-language melodramas usually get just six months to tell their tales of steamy betrayal, class conflict and tragic love before moving on to someone else's problems . (And not to start a culture war, but any channel surfer can see that Latino prime-time dramas have more oomph than that yanqui "Days of Our Lives" fuss.)

Plus, there's the attraction of the two biggest U.S. purveyors of telenovelas engaging in a few open-handed slaps: The brass at Telemundo dismisses rival Univision for buying novelas direct ("in a can," one Telemundo executive sniffed) from Mexico, whereas Telemundo makes its own. But Univision gets the better ratings, and doesn't even consider Telemundo a competitor, instead setting its sights on English-language territory; last month it drew more prime-time viewers ages 18 to 34 in some time slots than the Big Four networks.

This summer, Telemundo has brought out the big guns: Its newest and most heavily promoted novela is called "El Cuerpo del Deseo" ("The Body of Desire"), which is, according to its hype, "the most amazing story on Spanish-language television!"

"Deseo" has hardbodied stars, a free flow of brokenhearted tears and a reincarnation plot that kills off its main character before the end of Week 2. When the drama debuted on July 18 it drew more than 1.3 million viewers -- the third-biggest premiere in the network's history in that time slot, the network said. By the end of its first week, "Deseo" was the second-ranked daily novela in New York among Hispanics ages 18 to 49, according to Nielsen. That's still below Univision's typical nightly draw in July of more than 2 million viewers in that age group and behind Univision's current summer hit, "La Madrasta" ("The Stepmother").

At Georgetown's Cafe Milano on a recent Friday afternoon, officials from Telemundo threw a lunchtime launch party to give advertisers a look at "El Cuerpo del Deseo." Pasta dangled off forks in mid-bite as executives got wrapped in the story of Pedro Jose Donoso, a silver-haired business tycoon who in the first episode weds a treacherous beauty young enough to be his daughter. This isn't such great news to his actual daughter, the scheming Angela, who has some papi issues of her own.

"You're never going to see me again," Angela threatens Pedro. " Never! "

Angela stomps off. Father chases. Halts suddenly. Clutches tuxedo breast pocket with left hand. Dios mio :

Pedro tumbles -- CRASH! -- down -- BLONK! -- a flight -- THUD-thud! -- of stairs.

"Llama la ambulancia y el abogado," shouted Ricardo Villanueva. ("Call the ambulance and the lawyer.") He is president of Avisos Communications, a Latino ad agency based in Virginia. Women at Villanueva's table giggled and teased him that his life mirrors that of the aging Pedro.

"El Cuerpo del Deseo" is a remake of soap scribe Julio Jimenez's "En Cuerpo Ajeno" ("In a Foreign Body"), a 1992 Colombian novela. The new version stars Andres Garcia -- the mustachioed playboy once known as the Tom Selleck of Latin America -- who is making his comeback as Pedro after a six-year absence from the genre.

Thousands of messages have been posted on "Deseo" at Telemundo's Web site, with many viewers hailing the return of Garcia, others thinking that the 64-year-old needs to put his shirt back on, and some critics annoyed that the entire story line has been recycled from the '90s.

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