Building 'Betty'

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

LOS ANGELES Chop chop. If you want to watch Silvio Horta, creator of the new hit television show "Ugly Betty," eat lunch, better be quick. He does it at his desk, while scrolling e-mail. Also? Watch your fingers. In comes the plastic tray of takeout sushi. Three minutes, four minutes, tops. Teka maki down the hatch. Lunch is over.

Horta is only 32 years old, with the most-watched new series of the fall season, which ABC just announced it is picking up for the full season. Outwardly, Horta does not appear to be suffering from the stress of creating 42 minutes and 30 seconds of quality television a week for 22 weeks. "I've only lost 10 pounds," he says. He wears leather loafers without socks and his briefcase is a backpack he's had since college. He looks a little Tom Cruisey. Sleeping? "Not much," he says. But Horta isn't complaining. These are exactly the kinds of problems you want in television.

Initially, his one-hour soapy "fish out of water" comedy -- about a zafty Latina from Queens with the furry eyebrows working at a snooty fashion magazine in Manhattan -- was going to air on Friday nights, a time slot of comfortably low expectations in the TV week, the second-least-watched night, after the graveyard that is Saturday evening.

"It was going to be this nice little Friday night show," Horta says. "The pressure wasn't going to be so heavy. People liked it. Okay. Fine. Then it showed at the TCA." Horrors. That's the semiannual gathering of the Television Critics Association, whose members (when they were not eating or drinking) were shown an early version of the pilot -- and they raved . The ABC executives smelled a hit and shoved "Ugly Betty" into the spotlight of Thursday nights at 8,opposite an obscure show called . . . "Survivor."

"It was hold on, here we go," Horta says. "It was like all your dreams come true." He realizes, perhaps, this bit of dialogue sounds corny and so he explains that when all your dreams come true they become your reality and then your reality isn't really the same as your dreams, is it?

And we think: This dude is under a lot of stress.

"You always have these moments of panic," he says. "It could become overwhelming. But you ask yourself, what are my priorities?" He doesn't mean family, health, God, love. He means: The script, the set, the cast, the director, the music, or the newspaper reporter following you around? "What is the most important thing I need to focus on right now, and then that is what you do."

And so now Horta has to go look at a wig.

* * *

To say that Horta is the creator of "Ugly Betty" is technically correct: He developed and wrote the pilot. He imagined the look and feel, what is known in TV talk as the show's "bible." But ABC's "Ugly Betty" is based on a wildly popular Colombian telenovela from 1999 called "Yo Soy Betty La Fea," which was a blockbuster in Latin America and has since been spun off into successful soap series in India, Germany, Russia, Greece, Spain and Israel (where it became "Ugly Esti").

The actress Salma Hayek and the producer Ben Silverman ("The Office") owned the rights in the United States and were struggling to develop a series when they approached Horta.

Initially, Horta says, he was, like, nah, not really interested. He had just finished working on another pilot for ABC called "Westside" about the crazy Los Angeles real estate market and its agents, done in a "Nip/Tuck" style. "It never aired," he explains, "and there is a saying in town that there is nothing deader than a dead pilot. I said I'm done. I went to Europe for two months." (TV pilot season is Darwinian. This season, for example, ABC bought 70 one-hour scripts, which they whittled down to 16 pilots to shoot. Only seven aired.)

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