Los Angeles Times
June 25, 2001

A Dramatic Move

   Cristina Saralegui has signed on for nine episodes of NBC's 'Passions,' part of a strategy in the soap industry to woo Latino viewers and boost the genre's audience.

   By DANA CALVO, Times Staff Writer

        In the entertainment food chain, Cristina Saralegui is such a big fish that she can--with impunity--rattle off the names of this country's
   A-list Latino stars who could not do an interview on her Spanish-language talk show without a translator. She has so much impact that
   when Oscar De La Hoya was her guest, he nailed down a record deal.
        "What am I going to do with a boxer for an hour?" Saralegui asked. "We put a hat on him and gave him a microphone and had him sing
        In the Spanish-speaking world, Saralegui is everywhere. The blond Cuban exile has been a AT&T spokeswoman for the better part of a
   decade. Since 1989, her syndicated talk show, "Cristina," has drawn a worldwide audience of 100 million. Her radio show runs five times a
   week all over America. And the magazine she named after herself reaches more than 121,000 readers in the United States.
        So, next month, if bilingual soap opera viewers start to sense that their make-believe galaxies are feeling a little familiar, there's a reason.
        Saralegui is making a nine-episode guest appearance on NBC's "Passions," as part of a trend among the largest television networks to
   woo Latino viewers. In the last six months, the most popular soap operas have added a Spanish audio feed, Latino characters and, in one
   case, even modeled the plots on the short story arcs that help make Spanish-language soap operas, telenovelas, so addictive.
        And this summer NBC will issue its weekly soap opera summaries in Spanish to Spanish-language newspapers.
        "Passions" is just 2 years old, and its young cast is geared toward an audience ages 12 to 17. The strategy has worked--"Passions" is
   now the most popular soap among teenagers. But NBC wants the program to find a place in the daily regimen of young Latinas in much the
   same way that afternoon telenovelas have been able to do on Spanish-language television.
        These Latino viewer-outreach strategies are the result of desperate times for the daytime drama industry. The massive female audience has peeled away over the last six years, and many say it began with the O.J. Simpson trial, which gutted and preempted most daily programming with a "reality soap opera."
        The market then splintered with a glut of afternoon talk shows and strategic networks, such as Lifetime and HGTV, which went after the very audience base that daytime dramas used to call their own. "When one reviews the general decline in ratings of daytime television, we look at aggressive ways to attract more viewers. This soap has a Hispanic, African
   American and two Caucasian families as our core families," said Sheraton Kalouria, senior vice president of daytime programs at NBC. "When we thought about this summer and bringing new viewers, we thought of Cristina as a dream."
        Saralegui plays Tía Cristina, who comes with her husband from a vague place called "the old country." They've arrived for a double wedding in the show's town of Harmony.
   Saralegui's on-screen husband is played by Emiliano Diez, who has starred on a Spanish-language sitcom for the last two years.
        "They were looking for someone who was well-known in the Hispanic market. I didn't have an audition for it," Diez said, pointing out that both he and Saralegui were pleasantly surprised by the number of Spanish phrases written into the script.
        "We were not expecting that because it's an American soap on an English network, but . . . there is a Hispanic audience out there, and we should play to them," Diez said, moving in and out of Spanish and English with ease.
        While NBC's ratings machine is using Saralegui as a lure, she sees it another way. She reminds a visitor that she is one of the most powerful and wealthy female media moguls in this country, who has her own production studio and can call her own shots. That said, she took two weeks off for the first time since 1993 to do this guest appearance because she believes it is critical for the community.
        "It is important for the Latinos. It is important both ways--in Spanish and English," Saralegui said. "This is not a network thing. This is a Hispanic thing. We need more of our people to get work in both languages."
        Less than a month ago, CBS' "The Bold and the Beautiful" introduced two regular Latino characters--Paulo Benedeti, who plays Latino fashion designer Eddie Dominguez, and Sandra Vidal, who plays Sofia Alonso, a fashion model who has a past with him. Additionally, CBS added a long-awaited Spanish-language audio feed to the world's most-watched daytime drama.
        It's difficult to tell if the strategy will significantly help ratings in the long run, but statistics for mid-June compared with that same week last year show "The Bold and the Beautiful" losing viewers.
        In December, ABC began spooling out plots on "Port Charles" in 13-week "books" that offered resolution. At first glance, it seems like a formula that would enable people to float in and out of the show. Certainly the success of telenovelas on Spanish-language television has proved that viewers feel satisfied by the conclusions and are refreshed enough to gear up for the next short-term story.
        ABC's approach seems to be working. Since December, the number of "Port Charles" viewers, ages 15-24, has increased by 20 percent. And those are exactly the kind of numbers that reassure executives that young women will continue watching and, in the best network scenario, watch the shows with their daughters in years to come.
        Felicia Minei Behr, senior vice president of ABC Daytime Programming, said the telenovela "book" style on "Port Charles" indulged the short attention spans of younger viewers.
        "They like to get it going and boom! Every four weeks we give them a payoff, and every 13 weeks we resolve the book," Behr said. "We ask them to drop in. They don't need to commit for 20 years."
                                                               * * *
        "Passions" can be seen weekdays at 2 p.m. on NBC; "The Bold and the Beautiful," weekdays at 12:30 p.m. on CBS. Both have been rated TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14). "Port Charles" can be seen weekdays at 11:30 a.m. on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).