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Novelas bank on Venezuela's real conflict ... er competition.

Visiting Venezuela's two leading TV networks after an eight year hiatus, a few things are striking:

* The large number of telenovelas (or simply novelas) produced, which are actually surpassing Mexico, the traditional leader of novelas.

* The jump in the on-screen quality.

* The popularity that Venezuelan novelas are enjoying all over the world.

But, while in Brazil novelas are dominated by TV Globo and Mexican novelas by Televisa, in Venezuela there are two highly competitive private networks: Radio Caracas and Venevision. And here is where the fun starts.

Until a few years ago, Venezuelan novelas for exports were basically those produced by Radio Caracas and sold by its fully-owned subsidiary, Coral Pictures, from Miami, Florida.

Recently, a powerful player entered the novelas export arena: Venevision, now a 30-year-old broadcasting organization, which is part of the Diego Cisneros group of companies.

Venevision was able to gain ground in a short time by re-equipping and expanding its studios, and raiding Radio Caracas talent--both technically and artistically. As it was explained, the philosophy of Venevision is "when it is needed, only buy the best." Expansion at Venevision has been so frenetic that management is considering buying up private residences adjacent to the station, so as to build more studios.

Commented Sergio Gomez, Venevision's general manager and a 28-year veteran with the network: "Five years ago we had studios of 17,000 square meters. Now we have 30,000 and still need more." Nevertheless, Gomez, who like most top-level executives at Venevision, came from Cuba, has more than one problem. "Here the pool of technicians is very limited and international sales require high quality. We need more technical talent."

In order to expand its sales of novelas, Venevision formed a Miami-based international division under Carlos Barba, who promptly recruited BRB executive Maria Aragon, to head its office in Spain.

Understandably, Venevision's inroads has made Radio Caracas' executives nervous. In particular, Coral objected to a Video Age story, in which Barba is paraphrased as stating that, "Venevision prides itself in being the number one seller of novelas [in Spain]."

When this objection was pointed out to Venevision's executives, Carlos E. Cisneros extended an invitation to Video Age to visit both Venevision and Radio Caracas in Venezuela. "If it is possible," said Cisneros, who is the founder's grandson and a graduate in political science from a Washington, D.C. college, "we'd like to see a story about the success of Venezuela's novelas, rather than a domestic conflict." To which Edgardo Mosca Coppola, Radio Caracas' director of operations, retorted: "Logically they want to talk about Venezuela, since they cannot say anything about their novelas."

The war is on.

Previously, in Miami, Venevision's president, Carlos Barba, sent a letter to all of his Latin American buyers, contesting some comparative statements that Radio Caracas had made. Here the bone of contention was ratings. Other disputes have centered around the number of European countries that acquire their novelas.

Both Venevision and Radio Caracas are fiercely proud of their co-productions; Venevision's are mainly with Silvio Berlusconi's group, and Radio Caracas with Spain's Antena 3.

However, to some people, the difference between Radio Caracas and Venevision novelas is undetectable. But, listening to both groups, the dissimilarities are striking. Admittedly, to a non-Latin American, both novelas are better with the sound off, since the stagey overacting is manifested more with the original dialogue. However, the strong dramatic visuals can be supplemented with new dialogue, i.e. dubbing.

"At Venevision, we have two prime time periods, and two types of novelas," said Carlos Cisneros. "For the prime afternoon period, we produce the |soft,' more romantic novela. For the 6 p.m.-11 p.m. evening prime time slot, we have a more |hard,' or dramatic approach. In Venezuela, censorship is strict. The Catholic Church has a big influence on what goes on the air. Nudity is out. Violence is more tolerated, but it's never explicit."

Arquimedes Rivero, Venevision's chief executive producer and a former Radio Caracas executive, further explained: "Venezuelan and Mexican novelas are similar. The difference between Brazilian and Venezuelan novelas is that in Brazil, there are more subplots, so the novelas tend to be more complicated. Plus, Brazilians tend to introduce more racial conflicts in their work."

Rivero also explained that in Venezuela, "the central character is in 75 per cent of the scenes. At Venevision, we have real, everyday drama and traditional themes--no controversies. Usually, at the center of every plot, there is a woman. Our endings are always |rosa,' happy endings. We tend to mix the rich and the poor in our stories. Because of our novela's success internationally, some 50 per cent of the work is now influenced by international requirements."

At Radio Caracas, Armando E. Guia seems to concur with Rivero's analyses, but differs on the classification for his novelas. Guia is Radio Caracas' part owner and general manager. "Venevision's approach is the CMQ style," said Guia. "That is, the style of the old CMQ Channel 4 station in Cuba," which is the native land of Venevision's Rivero. Mexican and Argentine novelas are also of the CMQ type, or |novelas rosa' (|pink'), which were popular 10 years ago. On the other hand, the Brazilians go too heavy on the ABC economic scales, meaning that they mainly focus on the audience's first three economic scales. If we have to compare our novelas with those from Brazil, we go for 30 per cent ABC and 70 per cent DE, but very little from E, the lower economic-level, category.

According to Venevision's Carlos Barba, "We do daily research to assess the popularity of our novelas. The writers react to the data and write new episodes accordingly. For this reason, our novelas are so popular that we can go as long as 250 episodes." Radio Caracas' Guia countered: "We used to react to the audience's whims until four years ago."

"In addition," said Guia, "our novelas last anywhere between 150 and 200 episodes. Ideally, we aim for 200, but it is not always possible. After 150 hours, the writers dry up."

According to Guia, the average cost-per-hour of his novelas is $30,000, including studio's fix costs and fees for writers who are under contract. However, the initial high costs can be amortized with the first 50 episodes.

Barba acknowledged this highly competitive spirit: "The difference between Venezuelan novelas and those from Brazil, is the competition between the stations that produce novelas in Venezuela. We work under a lot of pressure."

But, even though the approach can be somewhat different, the results, to the untrained eye, still tend to be similar.

Indeed, both stations use numerous exterior shots for their novelas. Guia categorized the mix as 48 per cent exteriors, and 52 per cent in the studio. Venevision even purchased well furnished houses for their exteriors. Similarly, both companies produce three or four different novelas each day, while working on two new concepts. Venevision airs three one-hour novelas per day, and Radio Caracas broadcasts four.

The talent pool is also impressive. At Venevision, Rivero deals with some 3,000 would-be actors per year, to select fewer than 20 artists. Both stations have 20 writers in-house and utilize five writers per novela, including the head writer.

But, here is where Radio Caracas would like to draw the line. "Our scripts are closer to literature," said Guia. "We also use classic themes, like the one for our Love in Block 45, which is basically a Romeo and Juliet story." Guia defined Radio Caracas' novela style as "modern," compared to the "old" CMQ style. These "modern" novelas began being produced eight years ago, when Radio Caracas was able to convince Jose I. Cabrujas, one of Venezuela's top writers, to write a script.

Guia, an engineer by training, executes this "modern" approach using science, by using the PERT system, which "is now called CPM, or Critical Path Method, and, basically, is nothing other than an event planning."

For the science buffs, PERT stands for Program Evaluation and Review Technique, and was developed at Harvard in the 1960's, mainly by and for engineers. This method allows novela producers to see the plots and sub-plots in a linear form. Each of Guia's novelas contain at least four subplots. Then, Guia goes into "semiology," to assure that the message is properly expressed. This latest technique focuses on the scripts: "You need strong visuals to reach the lower classes, and a good dialogue for the upper class audience." To further fine-tune this highly scientific approach, Guia introduced "some redundancy," but only in the dialogue, so that even if the audience misses a few episodes, it can still catch up with the novela developments. But, cautioned Guia, "this has to be well balanced--otherwise, it becomes boring."

Regarding the actual production, Radio Caracas' output is one hour a day, while Venevision can produce two hours a day, taking four hours to edit a one-hour episode. This tight schedule is possible by borrowing film techniques and, in the words of Venevision's scenography designer, Anita Aguerrevere, by changing up to 40 sets a day.

Music and effects, or the M&E track, is of some concern at both companies, since they are not separated from the dialogue. At Venevision, M&E is "kept to a minimum," while Radio Caracas sends tapes to Miami, to artificially recreate a separate M&E track. At Coral, some typically Venezuelan expressions are dubbed to a more "neutral" Spanish, for Latin American sales.

What is markedly different between Venevision and Radio Caracas, is their marketing approach. For years, Coral strived to conceal the fact that they are part of Venezuela's Radio Caracas. Coral's sales promotion has been erratic, with the company undergoing at least five management changes in eight years. Recently however, Coral moved to larger quarters, hired top-level marketing executives and has become more aggressive.

Venevision, on the other hand, made great inroads with what has been perceived as a full commitment and a well executed marketing plan. It recently burst on the international scene by banking on its powerful name and linking with the Cisneros companies, a group that comprises everything from the largest Latin American Pepsi Cola bottler, to gold mining, manufacturing and retailing.

But, the beat still goes on.
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Publication:Video Age International
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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