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Stay Tuned For The Telenovela

Bob Cook, president of Twentieth Television, believes the time is right to see whether the popular Latin American telenovela format can be adapted for an American, English-speaking audience.

Based on what happened early this year, timing may be one of his strong suits.

He was touting his company's upcoming telenovela series, "Desire," at a convention of television programmers in Las Vegas when word came that the WB and UPN networks would join forces.

Suddenly, there were dozens of jilted TV executives with gaping holes they needed to fill in their prime-time schedules.

"We became the belle of the ball," Cook said.

The first story in the "Desire" telenovela series is scheduled to begin June 19 and Cook said he has commitments from broadcasters representing 70 percent of the country, and is negotiating with stations that would cover 20 percent more. Meanwhile, ABC and CBS are also developing their own telenovelas.

Telenovelas are essentially superheated soap operas, brimming with lust, deceit, lust, high emotion, attractive actors who work with little clothing and - did we mention it? - lust. Patricio Wills, head of production at Telemundo, joked that telenovelas are love stories with "a couple trying to have kids and a writer in the middle trying to keep them apart for 100 episodes."

Unlike American daytime soaps, some of which have been on the air for decades, the telenovela is like an extended miniseries that comes to a conclusion. Each "Desire" story, for example, will last for 65 episodes before a new one begins.

The first story, "Desire: Table for Three," is adapted from the hit Colombian series "Mesa Para Tres." It's about two brothers on the run from the mob who fall passionately in love with the same woman.

The appeal of the stories and format is something television executives say they can't ignore.

"We've watched an incredible growth globally, not only in the Latin community but all over the world," Cook said. "These things have been successful in over 100 different countries. Our television community is always looking for something new and something different."

That success is also confronting American TV executives in a way it never has before. Starting in December, the Spanish-language network Univision, which carries a schedule packed with telenovelas, began having its audience measured by Nielsen Media Research. The results have been eye-opening: two weeks ago, the 5.7 million people who watched one episode of Univision's "Piel de Otono" was a bigger audience than anything on the WB or UPN that week.

"We'd all be stupid not to say, `is there something about this format that we could use for a broader audience?"' said Stephen McPherson, ABC entertainment president.

ABC is exploring different stories, although McPherson said it's doubtful any will be ready for summer 2006.

People at ABC, he added, joke that many telenovela episodes are made for about what an American network pays for catering on a set. That has its obvious appeal but is also a danger: will American viewers be turned off by low production values when they are used to the elaborate sets of a "Lost" or "Desperate Housewives"?

2One of the things CBS noticed in concluding there may be a public appetite for these stories is a recent uptick in ratings for its own daytime soaps, said Nina Tassler, entertainment president. CBS has five different projects under development by the likes of novelists Nicholas Sparks and Jonathan Prince and "Guiding Light" writer David Kreizman, and will pick the best to go on the air, she said.

They will be adapted for American sensibilities, perhaps with fewer "heaving bosoms," she said.

"I'm part Latin, so everything in the Latin culture is - there's a lot of hyperbole and there's a lot of melodrama," Tassler said. "I think we're going to modify it for our audiences."

Fox is also reportedly looking at potential telenovelas, but no details were available. Like Fox, Twentieth Television is owned by News Corp.

Cook said he's not surprised by the broadcast network plans. "I'm thrilled that we were the leaders," he said. "Quite frankly, we welcome the fact that they are jumping in because it brings more buzz to the genre."

He doubts, however, that the networks will give the same time commitment that "Desire" is demanding. His telenovelas will air for one hour, five days a week. In an attempt to be user-friendly, Twentieth Television will briefly sum up the story before each episode and make a one-hour weekend show of the week's highlights.

Like page-turners, the trick of a successful telenovela is its ability to keep viewers intrigued enough to come back night after night, Wills said.

Latino immigrants who watch "Desire" will recognize some of the stars from old Spanish-language telenovelas, Cook said. Television executives are eager to appeal to the growing Latino market, but they must also realize as broadcasters, there's a danger in trying to reach one small segment of a market instead of a larger audience, said Tim Brooks, a Lifetime executive and TV historian.

It will be interesting to see if telenovelas have a wider appeal, Brooks said. He likened them to the adaptation of British comedies for American audiences. Some work, but many fail because of different sensibilities.

"It sounds like a great idea," he said, "and a lot of things that sound like great ideas on television turn out to be something else."

By David Bauder, AP television writer. (