Law and disorder are hot

English-language telenovelas, court shows are on the rise as syndicators reach for Hispanics

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Courtrooms and living rooms will take on a decidedly Latino flavor in the coming months.

The number of syndicated court shows featuring Hispanic judges is increasing. Meanwhile, the telenovela is breaking the language barrier with two series in English. While these developments indicate the expanding Hispanic influence in American culture, a boon for programmers and advertisers is that the new shows may attract more Hispanic viewers to general-market TV.

U.S. Hispanics, nearly 40 million strong and 15% of the U.S. population, include a fast-growing subset of second- and third-generation consumers seeking new, English-language content that's uniquely American but at the same time taps into their loyalty to heritage. Some 76% of Hispanics born in the U.S. watch English-language TV; of that group, only 29% watch Spanish-language TV, according to the 2003 Simmons National Consumer Study's review of Hispanic adults and language of TV viewing.

"It's indicative of society and the marketplace," says Michael Teicher, exec VP-media sales at Time Warner's Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. "It's a simultaneous pull and recognition by content creators and marketers that this is a cultural opportunity in the U.S."

Coming to syndicated TV next fall is Sony Pictures Television's "Judge Maria Lopez," which has cleared 90% of the country, and Twentieth Television's "Cristina's Court," featuring Judge Cristina Perez. These launches come on the heels of the successful opening season of "Judge Alex," Twentieth Television's courtroom program featuring Hispanic jurist Alex Ferrer. "The People's Court," from Warner Bros.' Telepictures, features Judge Marilyn Milian, who's of Cuban descent.

'desire' and 'secrets'

Beyond the drama of the courtroom, there's the steamy drama of the telenovela. These short-run soap operas drip with melodrama, love triangles and impending jeopardy. Twentieth Television will debut the restaurant-based "Desire" and fashion industry-based "Secrets," adapted from a pair of Latin American telenovelas.

Meanwhile, ABC, CBS and NBC have been making plans for their own telenovelas.

"It's just another manifestation of the Latinization of America," says Monica Gadsby, CEO of Tapestry, Chicago, the multicultural unit of Starcom MediaVest. "There is a large contingent of English-dominant Hispanics but who culturally might favor some of that flavor they get from the Hispanic dramas."

Telenovelas tested well during extensive research with Hispanic and general-market audiences crossing all socioeconomic, demographic and viewing profiles, says Bob Cook, president-chief operating officer of Twentieth Television, the syndication unit of News Corp. Unlike the Latin America-produced telenovela, the U.S. adaptations of "short-series dramas" will feature high production values and story content adapted to suit the American audience, he says. When presented in a 13-week cycle, U.S. audiences-especially women aged 18-49-liked the concept.

True to the genre's format of daily broadcasts, Twentieth Television's two telenovelas will air daily during the first 13 weeks of News Corp.'s recently announced new network called My Network TV.

Telenovelas seem to build on a growing trend of short-run content sets, like "Survivor" and "American Idol."

"We've been indoctrinated by the 'Survivor' model," Mr. Cook says. "So we're comfortable now investing time and energy into a rooting interest for a character, then having that character go away."

For syndicators, it's not about playing the Hispanic card, Mr. Cook says. Alex Ferrer and Cristina Perez are qualified, charismatic, humorous and attractive jurists. "The fact they happened to be Hispanic was an added bonus," he says, insisting the goal is not to present this new content as "Hispanic." Marketing will reach the general-market audience and those acculturated Hispanics looking for English-language programming without creating confusion, he says.

"What you don't want to do is create a confusion there," Mr. Cook says. "It will be funneled right at the general market, then a guerrilla aspect would be to get into the Latin pipeline to let them know ['Desire' and 'Secrets' are] novela-based."

Demographically, Hispanics are younger than the general market, so those content creators and marketers that reach them will build an audience for the longer term, says Jim Curtin, senior programmer-director of programming for Katz Television Group. Since many Hispanic families watch TV together, the shows can help build multigenerational bridges to Latino households.

"When you're looking for family-oriented demos, that's a multiplier effect in the importance of reaching Hispanics," he says. "Making long-term inroads into that audience and bringing them into the larger fold are important."
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