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Television & Radio

Stuck on `Ugly'

A diverse viewership has made `Ugly Betty' the No. 1 new show.

November 08, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

MIRROR, mirror on the wall: Who is the fairest new TV character of them all?

Her name is Betty Suarez, the 22-year-old magazine editorial assistant you might know as "Ugly Betty," ABC's fresh and spunky superstar. The show is one of only a few unquestionable successes of the fall season thanks to its appeal to a multicultural, predominantly female audience. More than 14 million viewers, mostly women of diverse ethnic backgrounds and ages, have made "Ugly Betty" the No. 1 new show in total viewers.

Not only has the 8 p.m. comedy helped put ABC back on the all-important Thursday map without any help from a lead-in show, it also ranks among the top 20 shows with 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic advertisers covet the most, and ranks as a top 20 show with viewers who earn $100,000 or more, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"To think that last year at this time I was in New York doing some research, sitting at a Starbucks, writing the first few scenes of this pilot," creator Silvio Horta said. "I had no idea if it was going to go anywhere. But I guess it just goes to show that this character's strength, honesty and optimism seems to resonate. She's really tapped into a void."

The show, inspired by one of the most popular telenovelas in history, the Colombian "Yo Soy Betty, la Fea," has been a smash hit everywhere it has been re-made, including Russia, India and Germany, and its most recent incarnation on Spanish-language television, "La Fea Mas Bella" on Univision. It seems it was only a matter of time before Americans fell in love with the bespectacled, bushy-browed, braces-wearing Betty, played with aplomb by America Ferrera ("Real Women Have Curves" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants").

Comedies don't typically compel fans to take to the Web the way serialized dramas such as "Lost" and "Heroes" do. But "Ugly Betty" is an exception to that rule.

"It's different from everything else that's on television right now," said 32-year-old Natasha Walcott, who likes the show so much she's created a fan website for it, the Ugly Betty Online Forum at http://s10.invisionfree.com/UglyBetty/. "I think people are just tired of the whole magazine look and women having to be a certain weight. It shows that character is what's really important. Plus, it's a very funny show, and that turns everything on its ear."

Starting with ABC's expectations. Originally scheduled for Friday nights, ABC pulled an eleventh-hour switch, airing "Ugly Betty" before the No. 1 show on television, "Grey's Anatomy," which moved from Sundays to Thursdays. Expecting it to click with women and younger viewers, the network has been surprised by how wide-ranging the audience is and how well it is faring against CBS' perennial time period winner "Survivor," said ABC Executive Vice President Jeff Bader.

Of its 14 million viewers, 10.5% are African American, 9.25% are Latino and 42% are 18 to 49 years of age, according to Nielsen Media Research. (Nielsen does not provide other data on ethnicity). Seventy-two percent of the audience is female.

"We were just trying to get our foot in the door on Thursdays," Bader said. "I think the surprise is that the audience is as broad as it is. But this show has worked everywhere that it's been done. It seems it's always been the right time for this show. There's just something special in this character."

Betty Suarez is a Latina from Queens who lives with her father (Tony Plana), sister (Ana Ortiz) and nephew (Mark Indelicato) and works in Manhattan as an assistant to the editor of Mode magazine, played by Eric Mabius. Betty may not be a beauty queen or have the best fashion sense -- she showed up to her first day of work wearing a colorful poncho -- but she's got heart, personality and confidence, qualities of which fans can't seem to get enough.

"She's not trying to fit into anyone's mold," said Leslie Janis Jennings, 31, of Tampa, Fla. "The show has so many positive messages. If you look at her character and her family's strong roots, everyone else has money and beauty, but they're so unhappy. And she who has no money or doesn't come from it, is just as happy as a clam."

Jennings recently turned to the ABC message boards in search of one of Betty's purses and was surprised by the Internet chatter the show has cultivated. Web entrepreneur Rian Montgomery, 29, of New Hampshire, was motivated to create a blog (uglybettyblog.com) to communicate with others about her new favorite show.

On that blog and countless other sites, "Ugly Betty" has sparked all kinds of interactions -- from some who appreciate Betty's sass to others who are furious with writers for making her father an illegal immigrant who last week confessed to his daughters that he killed their mother's first husband. Horta said he and the writers keep up with the Internet conversations to find out how his audience feels about the show's development.

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