Future of Telenovelas Split at Telemundo and Univision as the Genre Evolves

One doubles down, another moves away

Much like their American cousin the soap opera, telenovelas, which originated in Latin America, have the same sappy tone, breakneck production schedule and five-times-a-week run. But as U.S. Hispanic audiences get younger and savvier, the two leading Spanish-language TV networks in the U.S. are going their separate ways when it comes to the prime-time staple.

As Univision doubles down on its production of telenovelas, Telemundo is moving away from them.

At its upfront presentation at New York's Lyric Theatre Tuesday morning, Univision evp and CMO Jessica Rodriguez announced the network is in production on 15 new telenovelas. Unlike, Telemundo, which prides itself on producing much of its own content at studios in Miami and Los Angeles, Univision imports its content from Mexican network and production house Grupo Televisa.

"Drama is our prime-time TV mainstay. The telenovela is a deeply embedded part of our culture," Rodriguez said, acknowledging, "even the best of genres needs to evolve."

So Televisa, which has an ownership stake in Univision, spent 18 months studying the U.S. Hispanic audience. They found them to be younger and more educated and are viewers who seek "strong independent protagonists and stories that are crisp, and don't take so long to unfold," said Jose Antonio 'Pepe' Baston, president of Television and Content for Grupo Televisa. In a taped appearance, Baston said the intent was to "create content that is more relevant to our huge U.S. Hispanic audience."

In contrast, at a press event last week held before its combined upfront with NBCU on Monday, Telemundo president Luis Silberwasser announced the network was moving away from telenovelas, while continuing to produce prime-time dramas it calls "super series."

The Telemundo shows are darker: more guns and grit, less love and lust. One show, El Chema, bears a striking resemblance to the story of El Chapo, right down to the daring underground prison escape. Telemundo is also in production of three serialized dramas and two mini-series, including an expansive period piece called Cortes, Conquistador de Mexico.

Meanwhile, Telemundo digital is keeping the network in the telenovela game, partnering with BuzzFeed on a 10-part series that has "all the elements of a telenovela, with a modern twist," said Peter Blacker, Telemundo's evp of digital.

All of this comes on the heels of NBC canceling a sitcom named for the genre. Telenovela was a campy send-up starring Eva Longoria as a manic, non-Spanish speaking telenovela actress. Interestingly, Pepe Baston, the man creating all those telenovelas for Univision, and Longoria, the star of a fake one, are engaged.

How's that for some soap opera drama?