Saturday, May 5, 2012

TELENOVELA WATCH: MIA MUNDO And Product Placement On Telemundo

On Thursday, May 3rd, Telemundo premiered a new web-telenovela called MIA MUNDO. As with most of the network’s online forays, the production looks to be high on corporate marketing (the series is sponsored by Chevy and Verizon), and low on drama. The series is mostly in English, but awkwardly transitions into Spanish every few lines, a kind of reversal of the Spanglish that the network has been experimenting with in their telenovelas where characters’ Spanish dialogue is peppered with English phrases.

The plot, such as I could make out from the first episode, follows Mia (Jacqueline Márquez), an editor for an online magazine, and her boyfriend Ryan (José Guillermo Cortines, who was last seen getting stabbed to death on CORAZÓN VALIENTE). Mia is apparently a cringe-worthy acronym for the intended audience for the series: Modern Independent Achievers. The cast also includes Sofía Lama (LA CASA DE AL LADO), and from Bravo, Jenni Pulos (INTERIOR THERAPY WITH JEFF LEWIS) and Gretchen Rossi (REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ORANGE COUNTY).

The series is to run thirteen weekly episodes. The first episode clocked in at just over four minutes. Unfortunately, with such a brief runtime, the glory shots of the cars and close ups of the phones make all too transparent the production’s primary reason for being, a problem not shared by the product placement in a typical telenovela episode.

Product placement isn’t a new phenomenon to Telemundo. I recently saw an episode of Telemundo’s 2003 telenovela EL ALMA HERIDA and noticed a plug for Kellogg’s Special K - the product was prominently positioned on the breakfast table as the telenovela’s star, Itatí Cantoral, enthusiastically “mmmed” after every spoonful.

In recent years, product placement on Telemundo telenovelas has become far more prevalent. The end credits of every episode of their telenovelas now cite their corporate compensation. Occasionally, the writers manage to incorporate the products into storylines. On an episode of UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN, the heroine, in a fit of pique over the infidelity of her love interest, angrily applied L’Oréal Paris blush to her cheeks in big close ups.

Another example from the same telenovela, the heroine’s mother never kept her money in banks. The apartment is subsequently robbed. Learning her lesson, she goes to the corporate sponsor bank where there is a scene showing just how easy it is to open an account there.

In addition to product integration from corporations, Telemundo has also worked in recent years to overtly address broader social issues concerning their audience. The 2009 telenovela MÁS SABE EL DIABLO introduced a subplot promoting the census to Latinos at the request of the U.S. Census Bureau. The male protagonist of UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN is a senatorial candidate, so the telenovela has managed to work in a great deal of promotion about the importance of the Latino vote in this election year and promoted the Rock the Vote: En Español website. And RELACIONES PELIGROSAS featured the It Gets Better Project in their plotline about a bullied gay student.

There was a question in the comments section of my previous article about how telenovelas are changed in mid-stream, as is currently happening with RELACIONES PELIGROSAS. This goes into how telenovelas are written. Typically, after the first fifteen to twenty episodes of a telenovela are written, the rest of the scripts are usually written on the fly, a mad rush with scripts being delivered daily. The reason they are written in this fashion is because the producers want to be able to react swiftly to audience response.

Telenovelas are also recorded fairly close to airdate, there aren’t many episodes “in the can,” also allowing for quicker changes in story direction. Telemundo records as few as three weeks and rarely more than five weeks in advance. The window between recording and airdate can be even narrower with Televisa productions.

On Telemundo, each telenovela is filling five hours of prime time a week, and Telemundo lacks a plan B if one of their productions bombs. One of the major advantages Univision has over their rival is because they import their telenovelas from Televisa a few months after their airing in Mexico, there is always an available catalog to turn to if one of their telenovelas doesn’t catch on with viewers. This happened this year with the Univision / Venevision International co- production EL TALISMÁN. After a few weeks of flagging ratings in primetime, Univision was able to move EL TALISMÁN to an afternoon timeslot and bring over the Televisa production ABISMO DE PASIÓN to take its place in primetime, immediately improving their ratings.

At most given times, Telemundo is only producing three telenovelas to air on their network – the three airing nightly; the only time they begin production of a fourth telenovela is when they are wrapping up production of one of their current three. (Telemundo does produce other telenovelas aside from the three airing in the US, but those are intended for international markets.) With no productions in reserve to plug into the timeslot of a failing telenovela, the network must do everything they can to fix the existing production and improve ratings, keeping the production staggering along at least until a new production can be mounted. As with syndication of US television programs after a certain number of produced episodes, there is also an episode goal with each Telemundo telenovela to make the production more profitable in international markets.

One of the best examples of Telemundo overhauling a failing telenovela and managing to eke out a modest success was the 2010 telenovela EL FANTASMA DE ELENA. The telenovela began as a gothic supernatural thriller with heavy borrowings from Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA. The title ghost, the murdered first wife of the hero wandered the halls of a dark mansion, spooking the new bride. The most outlandish aspect of the plot had the men of the household afflicted with a curse heavily suggesting they turned into some kind of beast-men at the full moon.

The ratings were dreadful, so Telemundo made changes. Some were minor – the leading man and his brother were given haircuts and a new wardrobe. Some of the changes were drastic. At the center was a huge fire at the mansion that wiped out several of the characters deemed least popular. The supernatural aspect was thrown out – the title ghost explained away as the use of holograms. The curse afflicting the men of the household was cured almost overnight as a doctor invented a serum. From then on, the telenovela adopted a much more traditional story of the hero and heroine plotted against by the villains.

To signal these changes to the audience, new promotions for the telenovela were shot making it clear the telenovela was taking a much more traditional path, pitting the heroine versus the villainess. The telenovela was even given a different title: ELENA CONTRA ELENA. Later, the title was changed again to LA VENGANZA DE ELENA, before eventually returning to the original title when the eponymous ghost finally made a return to the plot.

Predictably, as these changes were implemented the telenovela became a train wreck story wise, but ratings improved and the telenovela managed to run 117 episodes and was a decent seller to international markets. Mission accomplished.

UNA MAID EN MANHATTAN (weekdays 8 p.m. ET on Telemundo) 
The past few weeks, a health crisis was introduced into the plot as the female protagonist Marisa’s (Litzy) precocious son Lalo (Jorge Eduardo García) was found to have a brain tumor. I’m generally not a fan of these types of game-changing, bombshell story developments (natural disaster, car accident, sudden illness); fully acknowledging these tragedies happen in real life, I can’t help but find their occurrence in drama a too easy way to ramp up drama which I’d prefer to arise from the characters. That said, this story development has given the cast some meaty material to sink their teeth into, and there have been some excellent performances of late, especially from Litzy as the tortured mother.

I think the telenovela on a whole is fairly successful, but only on the extremely modest terms it sets. It is severely lacking in ambition, and the characters mostly exist in a holding pattern over months with very little development, the thin plot chugging along, pleasantly, but uneventfully. Finally, that’s changing a bit and the actors are getting a chance to shine. This week, there was some lovely, sensitive work from Eugenio Siller as the male protagonist Cristóbal as he discovered the boy of the woman he loved was seriously ill and Marisa pushed him away because of her pride.

Two other scenes also stood out. One featured Lalo’s alcoholic, womanizing father (Paulo Quevedo) telling him a story about how his father forged Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela’s signature on a baseball, which then became his most prized possession and how the discovery the baseball didn’t have Valenzuela’s real autograph didn’t matter because the ball remained proof his father only wanted to make him happy. The other scene included a movingly performed monologue delivered by Cristóbal’s father (Fred Valle) about a sacrifice a friend made to save his life in Vietnam. These are the type of character-deepening scenes the length of telenovelas allow, pure character moments. It’s a shame we are only getting these types of scenes this late in the telenovela’s run, as it passes the 100 episode mark and is entering its home stretch.

- TELENOVELA WATCH: No Spanish? Our New, Weekly Column Makes Telenovelas Fun for Everyone!
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R.G. Morin writes a weekly column for We Love Soaps, "Telenovela Watch: A weekly look at the world of telenovelas for non-Spanish speakers." For feedback or questions, you can email R.G. Morin at [email protected].


  1. Thank you for starting to write about Telenovelas. I have been watching them for years and think they are great.

  2. Thanks for addressing my previous question about how script changes are handled. Of course, that begs the question, how do they determine what in the story isn't working? Overall low ratings don't really address the whys and wherefores of specific stories. Do they use focus groups, surveys, emails or message boards? Or do they glean more specific Nielsen data about when people are actually turning the channel? Or...?

    Also, I remember another form of product placement that Telemundo used was with Verizon Wireless during Niños Ricos, Pobres Padres. The show would appear to come back from a commercial break and start a scene with the actors, in character on an actual set. But then something would happen involving a cell phone on stage, and the director would yell, "Cut!" The actors would then go out of character and begin discussing their cell phone service with each other or someone from the stage crew. It was actually pretty funny and inventive. I remember thinking American soaps should do something like this on occasion.

    I believe NRPP was also the telenovela that actually used a Subway fast-food restaurant to film at on occasion. The high school kids would go there, and in betweeen gossiping about their friends and love lives, they'd discuss the menu. It was a litte more heavy-handed to say the least.

  3. Love your articles. Definitely gonna check out that Telemundo/Bravo amalgamation MIA. Any chance you will be covering any Univision novelas? Abismo de Pasion is running now and it's a remake of the fantabulous novela in the 90's Cañaveral de Passiones. I'm sure fans would be intrigued by the main story points. Adios!