What would make Nickelodeon film a teen series in Miami? A Spanish-language script.
Every character on Nickelodeon’s popular new show, Every Witch Way, speaks English, even when rookie witch Emma Alonso casts a spell to help her through the latest drama at Iridium High. But despite the English dialogue, the roots of the kids show were in the more familiar language of Miami’s television industry.
Nickelodeon’s Latin American arm landed a Spanish-language hit in 2011 with Grachi, the teen telenovela named after a young witch and filmed in rented studio space in Doral. Grachi lasted three seasons before ending late last year with a two-hour movie special. A few months later, Nickelodeon is touting the high ratings for the debut season of its Witch show, this one based on the Grachi script but filmed in English.
“The story lines translate completely,” said Catharina Ledeboer, the bilingual head writer of both Grachi and Every Witch Way. “Good versus evil, finding yourself — it’s all universal.” Not that Ledeboer didn’t have to write through the scripts for the light-hearted series. “The jokes didn’t work the same at all,” she said. “American kids are savvy. We had to work a little harder at the jokes.”
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The tale of two witches (and the languages they speak) hints at one of the better long-term hopes for new English-language television productions in South Florida at a time when local film offices fret about a coming drought of interest from Hollywood. With Florida’s subsidy program for incentives winding down, industry advocates warn that traditional series and movies will head elsewhere without the government dollars used to reduce costs.
Miami’s well-established industry of Spanish-language television producers also routinely dip into Florida’s subsidy pot, including payouts for both Grachi and Every Witch Way. But the sector is seen as far more likely to keep filming locally given its heavy investment in South Florida, its long-standing ties to the region and its penchant for lean production budgets.
Every Witch Way “has been a huge success in the U.S.,” said J.C. Acosta, the top production executive in the Americas office for Viacom, parent company of Nickelodeon. “We’re really excited this might open the door for a combination of producing Spanish-language and English-language content in Miami.”
Last fall, Univision captured global attention with the launch of Fusion, its first English-language venture.
Despite the challenges, Fusion’s Oct. 28 launch represented the largest bet on a South Florida television venture in at least a generation, and it has drawn significant national attention to the Doral complex it shares with Univision’s news division.
The cable-news channel faced a slow and wobbly start, with Univision and partner ABC dropping their initial plan to focus on English-speaking Hispanics and instead position Fusion as the news home for all news viewers below the age of 35. But even if the announced target isn’t the Hispanic market, Fusion executives say that demographic remains their baseline audience.
Jorge Ramos, one of Univision’s two star anchors, serves as the face of Fusion, too. Each afternoon, after finishing his Fusion program, America, he has only a short walk across the newsroom to record his Spanish-language show for Univision, Noticiero Univision. And while Ramos delivers the news with a loose button on his shirt for the youth-leaning Fusion, it’s not just the suit-and-tie that differentiates his approach to the day’s events for Univision.
“I have a completely different mental map when I’m doing both shows,’’ Ramos said. “When I’m doing the show in Spanish, I’m seeing Venezuela, I’m seeing Cuba, I’m seeing the recession in Argentina, the drug traffickers in Mexico.
“When I’m doing Fusion,’’ he continued, “I’m thinking Syria, I’m thinking Sochi, I’m thinking Israelis and Palestinians.”
About five miles away, at the U.S. headquarters of the beIN Sports cable channels, a team of soccer enthusiasts is leveraging the rest of the world’s futbol fever into niche programming for the English-speaking U.S. market.
beIN, part of a global network that used to be the Al Jazeera sports division, launched its U.S. arm in 2012. It picked production space off the Palmetto Expressway for its home base, two floors of studios, offices, sets and editing facilities.
From there, beIN manages a Spanish-language channel and an English-language channel for the U.S. market. The programming revolves around soccer matches played abroad, with beIN having the rights to popular La Liga games in Spain.
Every Monday, beIN’s signature show in both languages features the same format, the same set and even the same name, The Locker Room. The weekly round-up has two sets of writers and hosts, but shares an executive producer and the bulk of the control-room staff that manage the rapid-fire stream of sports commentary each in two languages.
“It’s the day after the big game,” host Jeremy St. Louis said during a taping after Seattle crushed Denver in the Super Bowl. “I am, of course, referring to the Derby D’Italia.”
What followed was a Super Bowl analysis only a soccer fan could love: futbol veterans Bodo Illgner, Cory Gibbs and Ruud Gullit taking about three minutes to marvel over how seldom most football players touched the ball in the championship before diving into the evening’s main topic: recent trades in European soccer leagues.
Inside the control room, line producer Andres Johnson urges the crew to keep the taping rolling, given the time squeeze of filming two shows back to back. “We have to finish this show by 7 to give Spanish time to clear,” Johnson reports into his headset. “Let’s keep the breaks as short as possible if we can.”
Both shows share sets, staff and the same schedule of soccer games to dissect every seven days. But beIN sees no value in the savings that would come with recruiting bilingual hosts or combining the writing teams. When it comes to soccer, executives don’t think a Spanish-language approach would always translate well into English.
“I don’t want to say my colleagues on the English side don’t have more passion ...” said José Hernandez, one of the Locker Room’s Spanish-speaking panelists. “But we really get into the debate.”
Univision’s launch of Fusion was seen as a hedge against a new generation of Hispanics drifting away from Spanish-language content and watching more television in English. Even so, Spanish remains the overwhelming profit center for Univision, which last year beat out all English-language networks for the top ratings during the summer rerun season.
With advertisers putting more dollars into the Spanish-speaking market, Latin media outlets see English as a side venture.
Univsion’s partner in Fusion, ABC, has been slow to get the channel picked up by cable operators, with Comcast, Dish and Time Warner still not airing the buzzed-about network. Tr3s, the MTV spin-off with a mix of Spanish and English programming, is scaling back its Miami operation, ditching expensive scripted series for a nearly all-music format.
“I do believe there is an opportunity there” in English, said Alan Sokol, once the chief operating officer at Telemundo and now CEO of Hemisphere Media Group, a Miami company that owns Spanish-language TV operations. “But I think it’s a difficult challenge.”
Hollywood routinely crosses language barriers in seeking out new projects, with popular television and movie scripts in foreign markets retrofitted to work for an English-language audience. ABC scored a hit with Ugly Betty in 2006 after picking up the concept from a Colombian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty, La Fea.
South Florida benefits from the reverse in Spanish-language television, with Univision using local studios for its Latin version of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. Telemundo used Miami for the first season of its kids version of The Voice, a hit for its parent network, NBC.
One of the advantages in swapping out one language for another is the savings that come with inheriting a show’s infrastructure.
When Telemundo wanted to air a Spanish version of Bravo’s Top Chef series, producers sent a Spanish-speaking cast to take over once the English season wrapped. The producer, Magical Elves, leaned on its roster of bilingual producers and writers, including Miami native Alex Davies, a longtime Magical Elves executive tapped to help run the Top Chef Estrellas series.
New Orleans may not be the natural launching pad for a Spanish-speaking cooking show. Its Cajun and French culinary traditions left producers scrambling to find the aji amarillo, guava paste, and tamarindo needed as pantry staples for the Latin version, Davies said. But the ability to walk into a turn-key television set made the arrangement particularly attractive.
“It was really high production value and high quality,” said Casey Kriley, senior vice president at Magical Elves and co-producer, with Davies, of Estrellas. “By doing it in New Orleans, we were able to use the existing set and utilize the entire production staff.”
Similar economics are driving Nickelodeon’s use of Miami for English-language productions. The ability to recycle Grachi’s sets, wardrobe, crew and creative staff for Every Witch Way meant some lower costs. Two bilingual cast members even landed starring roles in the English version, which aired its season finale last month and is now awaiting a renewal decision by Nickelodeon.
Meanwhile, executives hope to create significant savings with its next Spanish-to-English production: another teen series, this one based on a talented young chef prodigy.
“There are lot of economies of scale. Once we wrap the Spanish show,” Acosta said, “we can start filming the English-language version.”