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Arts & Life

Grittier Telenovelas Are Ratings Gold For Telemundo


Poor girl from the barrio meets rich guy at the mansion, drama ensues. That is the typical plot for a telenovela, that staple of Latin TV - or used to be. Now networks like Telemundo have reinvigorated the genre with grittier, more realistic stories. And Telemundo is getting a big boost in ratings. Here's NPR's Jasmine Garsd with the news on novelas.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It's an unusually muggy day, even for Miami. But I've stumbled into an air-conditioned world where there is no such thing as hair frizz or sweat, just shiny, flowing locks and impossibly high heels. I'm in the studios where Telemundo tapes its telenovelas.


GABRIEL PORRAS: (As Carlos Martinez, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: I adore you with all my soul. I swear you are my life, says Carlo Martinez to his forbidden lover in the new Telemundo telenovela, "Bajo El Mismo Cielo" or "Under The Same Sky." It's telenovela cheese 101. A few episodes later, Martinez finds himself in a cell. He looks around and asks...


PORRAS: (As Carlos Martinez, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Does anyone know where the devil we are?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As cellmate, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: In one of the federal buildings, says a cellmate, where ICE holds undocumented people like us. This telenovela's hero is not a rich patron seducing his maid. He's an undocumented single father living in Los Angeles who fears being separated from his family.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: That is Telemundo's crown jewel, "El Senor De Los Cielos" or "Lord Of The Skies." It's not your grandma's telenovela. It's more like a bro-vela. Its recent finale was the number one Spanish-language show in its timeslot and even beat many English-language shows in major markets. It's a Cinderella story, except Cinderella is a poor guy turned powerful drug lord who's being followed by the DEA and Mexican authorities.


GARSD: There's still all the romance and lavish weddings you'd expect. But the wedding gets interrupted by a gory Quentin Tarantino-esque scene in which a priest gets thrown off a tower.

ALEJANDRA TOUSSAINT: (As Isabel, screaming in speaking Spanish).

JORGE LUIS MORENO: (As Victor Casillas Jr., speaking Spanish).

JOSHUA MINTZ: I'm Joshua Mintz. I'm the executive vice president of scripted programming and the general manager of Telemundo Studios.

GARSD: Mintz says traditional telenovelas were not delivering the audiences they used to. "El Senor De Los Cielos" changed everything. With its sweaty action-packed scenes, it was a runaway hit.

MINTZ: We realized that there was a new format that was very, very appealing because it was really, really exciting. And we have an audience of young people that they're watching with their parents in Spanish. And it's really, really a show that - it's put Telemundo in a different level.

GARSD: This new format could be the answer to the question that looms large over all Spanish-language media in the U.S. If you're like me, a bilingual whose parents or grandparents are Latin American, why would you bother to watch TV in Espanol?

MINTZ: You will watch it if you are - if you're confronted with something that you won't be given in another outlets, something that will connect with you - because even though that you were born in the states and you're parents are Latinos, being Latino is something that you cannot just take out. You will always be Latino. It's part of what you eat in your house. It's part of the conversation. It's part of your daily life with your parents. And that will be transmitted to your kids.

GARSD: Telemundo is banking on a new recipe to keep Latino families together in front of a TV. Keep it real, and make it extra gritty. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.