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.
But the love-conquers-death narrative, for those witnessing the drama for the first time, has been seemingly hard to pass up. At rival Univision's message board, one "Deseo" convert wrote, in Spanish, "Yes, Telemundo has won this battle."
But this just in from the Univision research team, which sent a reporter an entire PowerPoint presentation: "By Friday [July 22], Telemundo's new 8 p.m. novela 'El Cuerpo del Deseo' had lost 41 percent of its Hispanic adult 18-49 audience!"
And this press release, from Telemundo, arriving just minutes later: "Telemundo Posts Ratings Growth In July Sweeps!"
The telenovela genre, considered the core of Spanish-language programming in the United States and across Latin America, is "what our audience grows up with," says Ramon Escobar, senior executive vice president of entertainment at Telemundo. "It is passed on through generations and is still the most popular genre to date." The network estimates that it earns 40 percent of its ad revenue from the four hours of novela action that airs each weeknight.
Public identification with characters is key to the novela formula, with families often gathering around the television for a long evening of suspense and commiseration. But sometimes that's not enough for Delia Fiallo, the so-called Mother of Telenovelas who started her career writing Cuban radio soaps in the 1950s before being among the first to take them to television.
"Before, women used to say, 'Yesterday's novela was so good, I cried so much.' Today, nobody cries watching a novela," Fiallo complained to World Screen magazine in 2003. "The new writers are rejecting melodrama -- they don't understand it, they think it's ridiculous. But I am convinced that melodrama is the essential ingredient of every telenovela."
With Telemundo airing eight new novelas a year, each for a standard 120 episodes, the demand for more tears and taut bodies has pushed the network to start its own telenovela school at Miami Dade College. Fearing burnout among its writing pool (they crank out more than 900 episode hours of scripts), Mimi Belt, the network's vice president of artistic development, created the 10-month "boot camp" to recruit and train new talent on the art of the telenovela.
After announcing the program in November, Telemundo received nearly 4,400 applications from novela amateurs hailing from 26 countries (even Lithuania and Japan) and selected 33 of them, who started classes in March. They have been learning from the likes of Fiallo and other industry veterans.
Instructors have whittled that number to 16, which includes playwrights, theater directors and a New Jersey middle-school teacher. It also includes Erick Hernandez, who immigrated to Miami from Cuba on a rickety boat and worked as a concrete company's dispatcher before telenovelas beckoned.
Hernandez, 32, had thought about writing short stories but says he feels he can make a more immediate impact writing for the masses. A telenovela is like "watching the story of a family every day," he said. "The story of a family with the same problems as yours. It's very real."
There are sons who don't connect with fathers and a perpetual gulf between the lower and upper classes. But at the core, always, is amor imposible, Hernandez says. Around the edges of the love story, a writer will pencil in socioeconomic struggles, villains and comedy -- inspired by anything from historical moments to newspaper clippings to a neighbor's divorce.
Garcia's Pedro in "Deseo," for example, dies of massive heart failure in Episode 9, his head crashing onto piano keys right at the moment that daughter Angela discovers her stepmom in bed with her two-timing boyfriend Andres Coronado, the citrus industry executive who was also Pedro's best friend -- or, as compassionate Pedro put it, the son he never had!
But not to worry: If "El Cuerpo del Deseo" keeps true to novela style, the soul of Pedro will return in the Bowflexed body of a peasant named Salvador, who will seduce the supposedly bereaved but sexually voracious bride and knife the young, traitorous Andres in a hand-to-hand battle at Pedro's posh mansion. Deceptions will be revealed, an adulteress will turn saint, and another big church wedding with cooing babies will close out the series.
Viewers who follow the novela through its course are "suffering with the protagonist and want to see the protagonist triumph," Hernandez explained. A concluding moral other than "the bad guys lose, the good guys win" would be wildly offensive.
Back at the Cafe Milano, Telemundo seemed to be getting the response it wanted. Wendy Thompson, a marketing executive invited to the "Deseo" preview, said the story of Pedro and his vampish wife had already ensnared her heart.
"I felt like I was watching 'Dynasty,' " she said.
in Telemundo's newest telenovela.Lorena Rojas and Mario Cimarro play a young wife and the reincarnation of her late husband (Andres Garcia, below) in Telemundo's heavily hyped soap opera "El Cuerpo del Deseo." Telemundo is counting on "Cuerpo" to bolster its position in the ratings against its more successful rival, Univision.