By Tim Dougherty
September 2000 - Ah, the television business. One year your network's down, the next it's up. Or in Telemundo's case, one year you're lampooned as Spanish-language TV's incredible shrinking broadcaster, the next you're miraculously reborn as a respectable also-ran behind behemoth Univision.
Jim McNamara has been in the industry long enough to know that network fortunes can change quickly, often inexplicably – which is why he's loath to put too much of a personal spin on the astonishing ratings growth he's presided over since becoming Telemundo's president and CEO last summer.
"I would love to take full credit for everything, but the bottom line is I stepped into a situation that was probably exaggerated on the down side, and I've received the full benefit of the growth," says Mr. McNamara, formerly the president of Universal Television Enterprises and CEO of New World Entertainment.
If he were so inclined, Mr. McNamara would have plenty to brag about. During his brief tenure, Telemundo's ratings have increased dramatically, more than 100 percent in some time slots, according to Nielsen Media Research. Moreover, the turnaround is largely his doing, owing much to his programming strategy involving telenovelas, the wildly popular nighttime soap operas that have been a staple of Spanish-language TV for decades, but which Telemundo swore off as recently as last year.
"Our audience likes novelas. So when the network said a few years ago that it was getting out of the novela business, it alienated a large chunk of the audience. My philosophy is, don't fight it. They want it, let's give them what they want. If novelas is what they want, give them novelas," he says.
The network is doing just that. Telemundo's fall lineup includes four new telenovelas: "Betty, La Fea," "Amor Sin Limite," "Terra Nostra," and "La Fuerza del Deseo." Two of these will replace current offerings "Muñeca Brava" and the surprisingly popular costume drama "Xica," both of which are scheduled to conclude in the fall. (Unlike American daytime soap operas, which typically run for years, telenovelas end after a few months. They invariably finish in storybook fashion, with villains getting their just due and the heroine being swept off her feet.)
"Xica," in particular, has performed in a big way for the network. A saucy account of a courtesan and former slave, set in 19th-century Brazil, it originally aired in that country in 1997. Dubbed in Spanish, it's become an improbable ratings bonanza for Telemundo heading into the new season.
"It wasn't a surprise to me. I knew it was a great novela, and when it comes to acquisitions I go with the proven stuff. I look at how it did in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. If it shattered records in every one of those places … it's probably going to work here. In the same way, if it doesn't work anywhere in Latin America, then it's probably not going to work here," says Mr. McNamara.
This regional acquisition perspective is new to Telemundo. In the past the network has relied on Mexico's second-largest television broadcaster, TV Azteca, to supply telenovelas, much as Univision relies on Televisa (see "A Broadcaster Without Rival," May). All of its new novelas, however, are from other producers. "Terra Nostra" was acquired from Brazil's Globo TV Network, and "Betty, La Fea" was imported from Colombia, for example. "Xica" was produced by Venezuela's Venevision.
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