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Reality takes a novela turn

Nine unscripted series will fill prime time slots on Spanish-language TV, but the shows will have a soap opera twist.

July 12, 2004|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

"La Cenicienta," Escobar added, "showed us that machismo is alive and well in most Latin families." Which is precisely what Galan says inspired the show. A single mother of a 4-year-old boy, Galan, who had dealt with her family's pressures to find Mr. Right throughout her life, said she felt a lot of shame when she became a mother without becoming a wife.

"I like to do shows based on my own experience," said the 40-year-old Cuban-born producer, who says she also developed "The Swan" -- a successful but controversial unscripted show in which women undergo sometimes dramatic plastic surgery as well as Galan's unique brand of "life coaching" -- out of her personal aging crisis. "When I was coming up with 'La Cenicienta,' 'The Bachelor' was on the air and I thought about how I could put my own spin on it. As a single mother, in the American world, I'm cool. But in the Latin world, there's something wrong with me. It made me realize that I can work in both of these worlds because I live in both worlds. So I think about the issues on my mind and I explore if it's coming from my Latina self or from just being a woman and I go from there."

Like many of its English-language counterparts, "La Cenicienta" had a deceiving twist -- one that built suspense and exposed an age-old double standard. The audience knew about Ruvalcaba's 3-year-old daughter and two failed marriages by age 23, but producers strategically kept that from the bachelors to force them to deal with their macho tendencies.

"None of the reality shows on the English channels would have given a woman like me, a single mother, a chance to go on television and look for love," said Ruvalcaba, now 24. "You know that many Latin men are very machista and wouldn't accept a woman like me. I am the opposite of what Cinderella is. But on the show I was treated like a princess and I realized that I deserve to be treated that way, even if I have not known how to select the best men for myself."

Successes on Telemundo

Unlike English-language reality shows, which typically offer one or two original episodes a week, "La Cenicienta" aired nightly for six weeks, mimicking the pace of telenovelas, which run their course in a few months. It boasted the highest ratings in its time slot and 1.2 million viewers for its finale, a high number for Telemundo, which was bought by General Electric two years ago and is managed by NBC.

Reality Spanish-language programming debuted on Telemundo in 2002 with "Protagonistas," a Big Brother variation in which aspiring actors shared a house while competing for a part in a telenovela. The finale of the first "Protagonistas" was watched by 1.4 million viewers -- a hit for Telemundo. But Univision and its sister network, TeleFutura, which control more than 75% of the U.S. Latino viewership, won't be satisfied with anything short of a breakout hit.

"We want shows to work at the levels we want. We want blockbuster, family-sized, super-sized ratings," said Otto Padron, Univision's vice president of programming and promotions, whose network ranks fifth behind NBC, Fox, CBS and ABC in prime-time viewing among those ages 18 to 49. "The few times that it had been tried in Spanish, it had not succeeded at those levels."

So the network with most viewers is about to jump into reality with two shows that may sound familiar in concept but will have a palpable Latin flavor. "Apostando al Amor" (Betting on Love), which blends elements of "The Bachelorette" and "For Love or Money," involves a swan-like damsel who pretends to be an ugly duckling as she tests the intentions of her 30 suitors, with the help of her family. What she does not know is that the bachelors are also vying for a jackpot of money if she chooses them.

"It plays out like a traditional novela in that you have two people looking for love and all the obstacles that they endure," Padron said. "There are romance, conflicts, jealousy and outwitting of each other. 'The Bachelorette' is more of a competition. This is warmer, has a human element to it."

Celebrity couple

Univision also will follow in the footsteps of MTV and document the lives of scandal-ridden celebrity couple Niurka Marcos and Bobby Larios. The soap opera stars met while filming a telenovela last year and began their very public love affair when she was still married to the producer who had made her a star. Marcos, who has single-handedly made Mexico's "Big Brother VIP 3" a breakout hit this year, and her new husband, Larios, will let cameras into every aspect of their lives for six to eight weeks on "Lo Veremos Todo de Niurka y Bobby" (We Will See Everything About Niurka and Bobby). Marcos, whom executives call " a walking novela," apparently intends to try to get pregnant and launch a record during production.

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