Televisa, an $11-billion enterprise that owns television networks, soccer teams and magazines, is the world's largest producer of telenovelas that already score with viewers in the U.S.
Network executives hope the English-language versions share other traits with their Spanish-language antecedents. According to a recent Rentrak study of TV viewer engagement, the Televisa-produced show on Univision, "La Que No Podía Amar" ("The One Who Couldn't Love"), held more of its viewers from beginning to end than any other show on the air, surpassing the most popular shows on television, including CBS' "NCIS," "60 Minutes" and "The Mentalist." Third on the Rentrak list was Televisa's other Univision hit, "Abismo de Pasión."
This isn't the first time U.S. programmers have flirted with telenovelas. Six years ago, ABC scored by turning a wildly popular Colombian telenovela into "Ugly Betty," a dramedy about a clumsy heroine.
But "Ugly Betty" ran once a week. The last time an American company tried a true telenovela, the results were catastrophic. Fox's MyNetwork TV flopped badly in 2006 with a series of cheaply produced programs for English-speaking audiences, including "Fashion House," which starred Bo Derek.
The network lost an estimated $50 million on its telenovela try. "The networks are under pressure to try new things and take some bigger risks," said Danielle Gonzales, managing director of the Chicago-based multicultural ad agency Tapestry. "Networks have tried scripted shows, reality shows, and here is this different format: a novella with a beginning, middle and end."
With more than two-thirds of U.S. Latinos having Mexican heritage, network executives are particularly interested in the soaps produced there.
Until recently, Televisa showed little interest in reaching English-speaking audiences. Then, a little more than a year ago, producers and network executives — including a delegation from Nickelodeon — began traveling to Mexico City, seeking permission to adapt their telenovelas into English-language shows, which led to the opening of the Santa Monica studio.
Televisa's stated "Latin feel with American appeal" goal — shared by its U.S.-based co-producers — is to extend the reach beyond Latino viewers. That translates into more diverse casts. Only a handful of actors on "Hollywood Heights" are Latino.
"Everyone is trying to target the Latino market, but we are trying to do something a bit broader here," said Paul Presburger, managing director of Televisa USA. "Latinos want to watch universal stories with Hollywood stars, often Latin stars, going through experiences that everybody goes through."
After all, U.S.-born Latinos are more likely to watch English-language television. About 70% of such first-generation Latinos watch English-language channels. That number exceeds 90% for second-generation U.S.-born Latinos, according to according to a Pew Hispanic Center study.
Carlos Ponce, a telenovela star in Mexico, now plays the father of rock star Eddie Duran on Nickelodeon's "Hollywood Heights."
"I compare this to 'The Cosby Show,'" Ponce said last month before filming a scene. "That wasn't a show about an African American family, it was a show about a family that happened to be African American. In this case, it's the same thing. We're second- and third-generation [Latinos], which is what this country is built of right now."