Media billionaire A. Jerrold Perenchio has cast himself in a new role: producer of soap operas.
The chairman and chief executive of Spanish-language giant Univision Communications Inc. has bankrolled the first telenovela shot and produced entirely in Los Angeles. Two years in the making, "Te Amare en Silencio" ("I'll Love You in Silence") will begin its three-month run on Univision on Dec. 15.
Costing more than $6 million, the project marks a departure for the former boxing promoter. His Los Angeles-based company has achieved dominance during the last decade, raking in billions of dollars, by providing a steady diet of canned soap operas from Mexico's largest broadcaster, Grupo Televisa.
But the U.S. Spanish-language media market has grown more crowded in the last two years. General Electric Co.'s NBC acquired competitor Telemundo. Mexico's second-largest broadcaster, TV Azteca, crossed the border with its Azteca America network, which also recycles Mexican telenovelas.
And in Los Angeles, the nation's largest Latino market, Liberman Broadcasting has burst onto the scene. Its KRCA-TV Channel 62 offers local newscasts, talk shows and a popular dating program.
The companies all are chasing advertisers, who this year will spend an estimated $2.4 billion on Spanish-language television. Still, more than a third of the advertisers who flock to the major networks, such as ABC, NBC and CBS, do not buy time on Spanish-language TV.
So Univision has been looking for ways to lure in new ad dollars and other revenue.
Enter "Te Amare en Silencio," packed with scenes of Hollywood, South Bay beaches and glamorous Rodeo Drive. The show boasts a former Mexican soap opera sensation and the flavor of Southern California, something missing from Televisa's studio productions.
"There's been a push to make these shows more relevant to the U.S. audience," said Rosa Serrano, a senior vice president of the ad-buying firm Initiative.
For Perenchio, who declined to comment, this isn't his first production effort. He and his wife, Margaret, were executive producers on "Frida," last year's critically acclaimed film about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. He also was a producer on "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989 and "Blade Runner" in 1982.
Sources said his interest in producing telenovelas began as part of a negotiation strategy.
He formed Paloma Productions more than two years ago when tensions were high between Univision and Televisa. The Mexico City-based company, which owns a 15% stake in Univision, provides soap operas to Univision as part of a deal that runs until 2017. Televisa also receives a percentage of the profit.
At the time, Univision was busy locking up Latin America's leading telenovela suppliers in part to squeeze out Telemundo. Univision also was looking for leverage because it was embroiled in testy negotiations with Televisa to modify their long-term deal, which they did in December 2001.
"Univision wants to have more control of its destiny," said Monica Gadsby, managing director of Tapestry, which specializes in Latino marketing for advertising firm Starcom MediaVest Group. "They are trying to plant the seeds for long-term success by not being 100% reliant on Televisa for good novela product."
"Te Amare en Silencio" was designed to duplicate Televisa's winning formula, with a dramatic story line teeming with passion and villains. It's about a woman who resurfaces 15 years after witnessing her parents' murder. Now mute, she falls in love with her childhood friend, who is married and the son of the man who killed her parents.
The program is scheduled to unfold in typical telenovela fashion, five nights a week.
"They were very careful to do this project with some names that will be familiar to the audience," Gadsby said.
One of those names is Eduardo Yanez. The former king of Televisa telenovelas has been playing small parts in movies and TV shows since moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.
Now, he's the star and a producer of "Te Amare." The show, he said, is important for Univision, and Latinos.
"If we make the ratings that we are expecting, then we might have the opportunity to produce more in Los Angeles," Yanez said. "And that would provide a fountain of work for Latinos."
Univision also is interested in exporting the telenovela to other countries. The Los Angeles location shots were included to give the show extra appeal to U.S. Latinos, and those who live abroad.
"There is something magical about Hollywood in the eyes of the rest of the world," said Yanez, who recently finished a film with John Travolta called "The Punisher," scheduled for release next year. Yanez plays a Cuban money launderer in the film.
Univision executives say they have no plans for other Los Angeles-based shows. A Univision-produced hourlong weekly legal drama, which was to be set here, probably will be produced in Miami, where Univision has production facilities.