Il caso Ugly Betty: i format come fiabe

Il caso Ugly Betty: i format come fiabe

(Pubblicato in TV’s Betty Goes Global: From Telenovela to International Brand)

Re-creating Betty’s world in Spain

FremantleMedia is a large global media conglomerate owned by the RTL Group, Europe’s largest television and radio broadcast company. It has its say in 42 television and 32 radio stations scattered in 10 European countries. RTL is itself 90% property of Bertelsmann AG. Created in 2001, FremantleMedia is comprises a number of companies: some of these have been operating for many years under Pearson Television that, in 1995, acquired the Australian society Grundy together with its local branches. Of course, all these studios became part of Fremantle portfolio in 2001 when Pearson began to operate under the FremantleMedia umbrella.

FremantleMedia holds franchise rights to Yo soy Betty, la fea, the Colombian novela by Ferdinando Gaitan. In Europe, FremantleMedia has entrusted the adaptation of Betty to several affiliated studios that operate on a local level: Grundy UFA, that in 2005 designed the German version of Betty, titled Verlbiet in Berlin and Grundy Italia, that cooperated with their peers at Grundy Producciones in order to work out the Spanish version in 2006. Grundy Ufa and Grundy Italy worked separately, while the latter took Grundy Producciones under its aegis.

Yo soy Betty, La fea was broadcast in Spain by Antena 3 in 2000-2001. Some years later, another channel, Telecinco, decided to screen a daily soap and relied on that well-established brand. Soon did a cooperation with Grundy Italia follow, thanks to an agreement between Roberto Vasile, chief executive officer at Telecinco, and his peer at Grundy Italia Roberto Sessa. Yo soy Bea soon became a successful soap opera in Spain.

The Spanish case is utterly relevant in that it allows us to trace a flow of contents, creativeness and production procedures shared among several countries. The Colombian novela is adapted in Spain thanks to an Italian studio that triggers a flow of know-how with its Spanish counterparts. At the same time, both studios take in a model of soap opera born in Australia and shaped according to the British real drama.

We chose to examine the Spanish situation using an interview with Roberto Sessa[1] as our guiding plan. According to him, a good adaptation results from “a good, winning original idea – that is, from a concept – and then from the re-construction of a world that viewers can perceive as close as possible”. What are the challenges in this process? What economic, productive, cultural and creative elements must be taken into account?

1. Betty is a Universal Story

In the 1990s, globalization in the television sector called for TV shows that used a well-defined format: it was a sort of Sacred Grail for both producers and broadcasters.

A format – a term that the wide public misunderstands more often than not – can be defined as an “original and distinct grid for a TV show that comprises both contents (themes, genres, goals, etc.) and structure (development of its sequential or narrative stages, scene arrays, regular characters…) guidelines”[2]. A format is usually a balanced system made up of different drives. It displays a clear-cut backbone, which can be altered as necessity arises. There are high formats, whose structure is to be observed to the letter, and low format, distinguished by more flexibility.[3]. Both are subject to adjustments when specific countries decide to resort to either.

Formats are areas where universal and local trends clash, and may eventually strike a balance[4]. They travel from country to country sailing routes established by large international groups. Every step involves a local incarnation of the format shaped by the work of every media giant’s national franchisee, as was the case for Grundy, an Australian studio founded in 1959. It soon became an international giant company, well renown for a soap opera called Neighbours The company reached Europe in the mid 1980s, namely the UK, through its American affiliate Reg Grundy Productions. The British division then joined Talkback Thames – part of the FremantleMedia group – as an affiliate. At the end of the decade, Grundy leaned towards Germany where it finally consolidated its position as Grundy UFA, while in Hungary it became Magyar Grundy UFA.

In the mid 1990s, Grundy also stretched towards Italy. The company had already been acquired by Pearson TV and triggered a cooperation with Aran – a society founded by Roberto Sessa and two other people at the end of the 1980s – so as to produce the first Italian soap called Un posto al sole (literally A place in the sun), a sort of adaptation of Neighbours. However, in 1998 the Pearson group acquired Mastrofilm, another company by Sessa, and brought forth Grundy Italy, with Mr Sessa as its head. Its main goal was the production of Un posto al sole. Once the group had become one of the most important producing company in Italy, the cooperation with Grundy Producciones could easily start. Sessa was CEO for Grudy Italia until 2009 and was also part of its board of directors. He was the first promoter of the cooperation between Spain and Italy that ultimately brought about the Spanish version of Betty.

       Yo soy Betty la fea, created by Ferdinando Gaitan, was an immediate success in Colombia since its debut in 1999. As years went by, the product was successfully exported to several foreign countries, where the novela was dubbed. Soon were a number of local remakes of Betty produced: the novela by Gaitan took on the shape of a global franchise and became a real format. One may wonder what made Gaitan’s work fit to travelling around the world.

“The strength of Betty” says Sessa “lies in its core idea: while the premise may be banal – in its allusions to the Ugly Duckling and Cinderella – it allows for easy access, since the public can enter into the tale right away. Moreover, when the tale is delivered through well-written characters plunged in a world able to stimulate the viewers’ curiosity, the story becomes universal. This accounts for the success of Betty in both its dubbed and adapted versions.”

Betty is a conventional show, in that it stages an archetype, be it the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella. The idea is as much universal as it is recognizable; and while drawing upon well-established formulas, it is also capable of reorganization in its new version. The repetition of well-known patterns through infinite variations is the heart of serial TV shows, be it prime-time drama, soap operas or telenovelas. Therefore, given its archetypal nature, Betty is endowed with the elements of its future replications right from the start. The well-known narrative matter enables immediate accessibility: the viewer’s passage in the heroine’s world is made easier by a sort of pre-existing knowledge of the overall plot.

What makes the story able to become an international format is what we may call a full-blown “transparency effect”. Betty never hides neither its core theme nor its narrative structure.

Gaitan’s novela is a fable on physical (Ugly Duckling) and on social (Cinderella) transformations. Betty is transformation par excellence: the makeover itself is the narrative core of the novela both on the literal and on the figurative level. The “content scheme” of the work is easy to identify and is vividly displayed on the heroine’s body itself.

Moreover, Gaitan’s novela is based on a recognizable narrative progression. Such a development pattern can refer to fables but also to the “hero’s journey” narratives as analyzed by Joseph Campell[5] and as displayed on the silver screen by Chris Vogler[6], a Hollywood story analyst. The hero’s journey develops through 12 stages: once out of his ordinary world in order to enter an extra-ordinary one (most of the time unknown), our hero must face a long journey which implies an inner transformation, and only once the transformation is complete can our hero reach his goal. Gaitan’s novela exploits such a sequential pattern though expanded because of the huge number of episodes. We can define such narrative pattern as a full-blown “structural scheme”, visible and recognizable.

Betty is about the journey of a heroine in transformation, a fable with stages leaning towards a coveted makeover. Gaitan’s novela never hides its theme nor the path the heroine is bound to follow. Betty displays transparent content and structure. Such features make the reception of the story accessible and recognizable. From a production viewpoint, such a characteristic expedites the transformation into a format, and the ability to replicate in different regions of the world.

At the same time, Betty’s journey is possible thanks to a new global dimension of the television market, that allows Fremantle to acquire a format and spread it in different countries throughout local affiliates, triggering a fertile exchange of creative and productive practices.

2.Betty in Spain: Grundy Style

In Spain Yo Soy Betty, la Fea was already a well-known show[7] thanks to Antena 3’s successful broadcast of the original version in 2001-2002. Such a success made a Spanish version more tempting because “brand reputation helps the product deployment, since it triggers visibility”. For this reason, in 2006, private network Telecinco and Grundy put forward the idea of a Spanish version. “The adaptation stems from an intuition of Paolo Vasile’s, CEO at Telecinco. During a meeting on other projects, I told him we had already secured the rights to adapt Yo Soy Betty, La Fea. Telecinco was looking for a Spanish-produced daily series, something which was comedy-themed. We stepped in at the right time.”

Grundy’s action found a fertile ground. Betty was already a well-known and successful brand, both in its original Spanish version and in the German adaptation by Grundy UFA. Since Telecinco needed a daily series, Betty appeared as a feasible solution, further boosted by its past success.

Vasile wanted Sessa’s team to lead the project. The Italian team gained the upper hand for several reasons: firstly, they had had the idea and, secondly, they could display a solid production background. Grundy Italia welcomed Grundy Producciones under their aegis and their cooperation began: “At first, we created a mixed formula with Italian editors, Creative Producer and Production Manager supporting the Spanish team. The Italian activity was progressively reduced, until a fully Spanish staff was assembled.” Localization, therefore, is also a process of know-how distribution. This case entails a double migration of creativeness: at first, from the original novela to the Italian creative group, and then to the Spanish team. The circulation of formats, therefore, also implies the circulation of collaborative and trans-national routines for production and creation[8]. The case of Grundy Italia-Grundy Producciones also highlight an older migration of creativeness, mainly linked to the TV-programme flow between the UK and Australia in the 1970s.

Grundy has been the leader in Australian soap operas since the 1980s. The genre is rooted in the British tradition and is largely indebted to the UK soap opera Coronation Street, imported in the country in 1967. British soap operas have often been defined as “real dramas” and are different from American soap operas, first of all because of their social realism, their recognizable regional setting, and the preference for blue-collar characters and environments, often nostalgically idealized[9]. According to Dunleavy[10], in the 1970s the Australian audience had already came to favour the British “ordinary” style over the American “excessive” one for the production of national soap-operas. However they felt a “local” need to seal the Australian soap-opera style as a recognizable one: the rising demand for local productions forced Australian televisions to increase their quota of low-cost productions; therefore, soap-operas became daily broadcasts. The day-by-day realism of British soap operas, tempered by the Australian sun, mixed with the 5-day-a-week-prime-time format. When acquired by Pearson, Grundy was already a leader in this field and, thanks to the success of Neighbours and of its local productions, it managed to radiate its style all over Europe.

Grundy Italia, for example, learnt how to produce soap operas through the adaptation of Neighbours, which became the first Italian soap opera, Un Posto al Sole (1996)[11]. This product summarizes many features of the Grundy style: the focus on ordinary daily life and regional peculiarities (the show is set in a vivid Naples), an amusing inclination (as the Australian sun translates into the Mediterranean one) and the five-day-a-week, Monday-to-Friday prime-time (at 8.35 pm.) broadcast strategy[12].

In our interview, Sessa stated that Grundy Italia and Grundy UFA had no contact whatsoever concerning the adaptation of Betty. However, they appeared to operate with the same goal in mind, following tacitly the “Grundy Style”: Betty’s excesses are softened, while the sense of ordinariness is increased. This rebuttal of excess and attention for realism are confirmed by Michael Esser, the scriptwriter of Verliebt in Berlin, the German version of Betty: “The main adaptive changes involved the softening of the original cheerfulness and the introduction of a more realistic dash, so that the German viewers could intimately relate to the characters”[13].

Even the tone of the narrative is adequate to this need for realism and everyday life: the social description mimics comedy, but avoids the farcical attitude of the original work. The new product is always aware of regional peculiarities and is set in a specific Spanish town (Madrid and its outskirts). The transmission is reminiscent of the Australian model: Bea is broadcast five days a week, Monday to Friday. The only difference is in the time, since Telecinco schedules the show in the afternoon (and the actual time will be changed from season to season), but will be eventually set at 7.00 pm.[14]

All these changes turns Betty into Bea – that is, into a Grundy-style soap opera. Such a transformation is the first step towards the local adaptation of Gaitan’s Colombian novela. A format adaptation is usually linked to a country’s own culture, that is a combination of formal and production factors related to the evolution of the medium. Localness appeals to a country’s specific audiovisual tradition, and the adaptation of a format fosters the creation of what may be defined as a “televisual sense of place”. In the Spanish adaptation of Betty by Grundy Italia, the re-creation of a “televisual sense of place” was supplied by the “Grundy style”, originated in British and Australian traditions and now popular in many European countries.

3.Betty becomes Bea

In order to adapt to a local context, Betty undergoes several revisions. It is not only a matter of changing the set of the heroine’s adventures: the transformations are obviously linked to the Spanish Television’s specific needs and stylistic options.

Localness is related to each network’s practical and specific scheduling requirements. Betty’s universal story had to find an exact collocation inside Telecinco and its contents called for a completely new mould. Betty had to be re-thought according to three factors: the time slots of the Spanish network; the number of requested episodes; the new demands prompted by its wide success.

As Sessa himself explains, “we adapted the format to the scheduling needs: the original episodes ran for 25 minutes, whereas Telecinco wanted them to be 35 minutes long. Therefore we created new features and storylines, including a mystery element which was absent in the original. The original series comprised 300 episodes, whereas our adaptation had to clock in around 400. In the end, we stopped short of episode 500.” The first temporal expansion has a stringent implication: more minutes and more episodes. Betty’s time expands, and therefore even the story has to inflate. The core plot stretches over more episodes, although this does not imply a dilution of the story: conversely, new plotlines are added, making the original story line more complex insofar as a new genre mixture is offered.

However, around episode 500, “the story was really exhausted: the two main characters were to marry, and that would be it. Although an ending was scheduled, Vasile asked us to keep going. We definitely turned the product into a never-ending story: that is, into a real soap opera. The story typology was similar, but all characters and situations were changed, and we devised a new location. The passage from telenovela to soap opera is an innovative, seldom performed operation.”

Therefore, once the original vein ran dry, Bea’s world did experience a dramatic twist in its temporal dimension. Soap opera and telenovela are both a continuous serial because of the huge amount of episodes and their almost endless narrative development[15]. The closed continuous serial, with a distinct ending of the story, is a feature of the telenovela. By contrast, a soap opera displays an open continuous serial because no clear conclusion of the plot is available or foreseeable

In Yo soy Bea one can identify a distinct attempt to shift its narrative from telenovela to soap opera through a double transition: from closed to open. Just like a telenovela, Yo soy Bea offers a conclusion for its main plot: Bea’s transformation is complete and the woman can crown her dream of love. However, the screenwriters also decide not to bring their whole narrative world to an end: rather, they unravel it and create numberless new possibilities, just like Bea was a soap opera. A new heroine appears (namely Be), a girl who has to show everyone, and her mother above all, that she is able to survive without any external support. From the original world created by Yo Soy Bea, with its own distinguishable places and characters, the diegesis only survived: the narrative space was contiguous with the previous one, but new locations and characters were introduced.

It was of course a risky operation which reminds us of other attempts to extend Betty’s adventures through spin-offs[16].The Spanish route is however more complex, as it entails a change in the original format, in an attempt to further indefinitely the narrative world. However, the commercial results of the new format have been disappointing. Because of low ratings (average 17.2% of share)[17] Telecinco decided to cancel the show on August 16th, 2009, after 773 episodes. Perhaps the show suffered from the substitution of the main character, since Betty’s story was not replaced with an equally universal woman.

In Bea, localness is also produced by a mise-en-scene and by stylistic and narrative choices. Realism is a narrative solution common to European daily soap operas shaped according to Grundy style as also Sessa himself explains: “In our adaptation, we altered the overall tone, trading farce for realism. Also, the visual style is realistic.” Bea therefore is a comedy and not a farce, and the change implies a shift in linguistic register towards a “realistic”, more ordinary and less excessive model. This tone distinguishes the Spanish Bea from the Colombian and American Betties. The quest for realism and ordinary tone are the reading keys through which the plot captures its viewers. Such a device also influences the producers’ choice of the setting and the actress.

“Localness” needs to be thought in terms of spatial sense: “We took the characters and plunged them into their reference world – the outskirts of Madrid. We brought the characters closer to the viewers’ daily world.” Localness means placing a universal story into a specific space. Archetypal characters are given a nearby stage – that is, known and familiar to viewers – and adopt a local flavour. Plot and characters cannot simply be transported from one place to another, since this will never be enough: a proper “sense of place” must be reconstructed at all costs. Localness therefore implies the creation of a likely context that calls for something more than a simple geographical setting.

In the end, localness acquires a real body. Sessa’s insistence on the choice of the leading actress is worth remarking: she had to be “believable” in her role: “Our characters are realistic. Our Betty is slim, almost skinny, and quite believable; in the German adaptation, for example, she was played by a gorgeous girl spoilt by makeup”. Actress Ruth Núñez plays Bea in the Spanish version: she does not flaunt a striking beauty, but rather a common Mediterranean countenance. She does not display the usual physical exuberance of Spanish women: her body is slim and lean. Núñez can reasonably incarnate the common Spanish girl, made uglier by the wrong make-up, or humiliating dress and accessories. The final transformation is not as awesome as her German counterpart, but far more realistic. In this respect, Núñez incarnates a dream of transformation that is more natural and ordinary, within her viewers’ reach and completely intriguing.

4. Betty (not) in Italy

Betty is a fairytale: it is a remake of the Ugly Duckling and of Cinderella. It is also an original fairytale about our era in that it roams the world as ancient fables did and gets embodied in each nation according to the complex set of economical, institutional, cultural and aesthetical factors peculiar to a country and its televisual tradition.

However, the globalization of television markets does not imply an a-problematic flow of texts among countries. Recounting the events leading to the Spanish version of Betty, Sessa stresses the importance of the “right time”, that is of a fortunate convergence of productive and market logics which should not be underestimated. The circulation of formats depends on local and international conjunctures, often intertwined in a hardly extricable manner.

This is exactly what happened in Italy, where no local version of Betty was ever produced although Grundy Italia had already tested the format with success. “Even if the Spanish adaptation had been a stratospheric success in Spain – a country similar to Italy – and was produced by a “cousin” network, nothing similar could be done [in Italy].”

Sessa is here alluding to a series of trans-national relationships which actually blocked the flow of contents. Telecinco is a private network whose 50,1% is controlled by Mediaset media group (hence the “cousin” status), owned by Silvio Berlusconi and currently operating three on-the-air networks in the country. However, Mediaset could not pursue the project of an Italian adaptation of Betty because of a concurrent international agreement: the exclusive deal for daytime programmes which the group had signed with its semi-controlled[18] production house Endemol. Because of this agreement, Grundy could not develop daytime products for Mediaset.

In the Summer of 2007, Alessandro Salem, content director of RTI (Mediaset’s editorial branch), offered Sessa the chance to develop a primetime-oriented version of Betty (which would therefore anticipate the ABC version). However, Sessa declined, believing that the potential of the format lay in daytime programming. Moreover, Sessa had already been in talks with state-owned television RAI, (for which Grundy had been developing Un Posto Al Sole) in the person of RaiFiction’s director Agostino Saccà. Even though project manager Paolo Terracciano had worked for six months on the Italian version of Betty, reaching even the audition stage, the project was eventually cancelled[19].

Although Spain had been the main exporter of formats towards Italy (as exemplified by I Cesaroni inspired to Los Serranos, and Médico De Familia which prompted Un medico in famiglia), the pairing of the two nations, further favoured by the presence of Grundy Italia, failed. In Italy, the seemingly unstoppable Betty franchise was brought to a halt.

The Italian viewers had a chance to watch Gaitan’s original version (on Happy Channel and Lady Channel on Sky; on regional channels such as Teleroma 56, Telenorba, TV Centro Marche, Videocalabria, Antenna Sicilia), the American version (on Italia 1, a channel owned by Mediaset, and on FoxLife, pay TV on platform Sky), and even the Chinese version (, a web TV owned by Telecom Italia). Unfortunately, they were deprived of the chance to taste a local adaptation of Betty’s transformation. The journey of the hero was brought to a check. It did not affect the narrative level (the universal nature of her story conquered our screens), but rather the international franchise. The Italian case in fact demonstrates that the circulation of formats can be limited by international agreements; a project can meet failure when it does not find the “right time” at a local level, due to adverse economical, productive or institutional conjunctures.

[1] The interview was recorded by the author on July 16th, 2009. All unspecified direct quotations appearing in this paper are to be intended as coming from this original document. Roberto Sessa left Grundy Italia in December 2009. In May 2010, Grundy Italia changed its name in Fremantle and combined with the Italian studio Wilder whose head, Lorenzo Mieli, is now chief executive.

[2] A.Grasso, Enciclopedia della Tv, Milano, Garzanti, 2008

[3] See Paolo Taggi, Morfologia dei format televisivi, Roma, Rai Eri, 2007

[4] See R. Nelson, “Tv Fiction Exchange: Local/Regional/National/Global”, Critical Studies in Television 2/2.

[5] J. Campell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1949

[6] C. Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, 1992

[7] In 2006 Antena 3 broadcast the Mexican version of Betty (La fea mas bella), together with Yo soy Bea, without much success. Some time later, channel Cuarto acquired the rights for the American version, but Telecinco blocked the broadcast until 2008. Since it owned the rights for the Colombian original version, Telecinco tried to reach a complete monopoly for its transmission. On the conflict involving the different versions broadcast in Spain, see B. Lippert, “The ‘Bettyer’ Way to Success”, Critical Studies in Television, vol. 3, issue 2, Autumn, Manchester University Press, 2008.

[8] The joint work of Italy and Spain enabled the consolidation of Grundy’s Spanish branch: thanks to the success of another Grundy-produced show, Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso, in October 2008 Telecinco signed a two-year agreement with Grundy Producciones for the production of new daytime and primetime shows.

[9] See A. Grasso, M. Scaglioni, Che cos’è la televisione, Garzanti, Milano, 2003

[10] See T. Dunleavy, “Coronation Street, Neighbours, Shortland Street: Localness and Universality in the Primetime Soap”, Television and New Media, 2005:6

[11] See M. Buonanno, “From Literary to Format Adaptation: Multiple Interactions Between the Foreign and Domestic in Italian Tv Drama”, in Critical Studies in Television, vol.4, issue 1, spring, Manchester University Press, 2009

[12] While Australian and British “prime times” are congruent (18.30 – 22.30), other countries feature different situations, although similarities in the scheduling of Grundy’s soap operas can be noticed. In Germany Verliebt in Berlin was broadcast at 19:15, in the daily prime time access time (which goes from 17:00 to 20:15). In Italy, Un posto al sole is broadcast at 20:35, also in the prime time access time

[13] Quotation from B. Lippert, “The ‘Bettyer’ Way to Success”, Critical Studies in Television, Critical Studies in Television, vol. 3, issue 2, Autumn, Manchester University Press, 2008, p. 29.

[14]            In Spain, prime time begins at 22:00.

[15] See Milly Buonanno, Le formule del racconto televisivo, Rcs, 2002, Milano.

[16] B. Lippert, “The ‘Bettyer’ Way to Success”, Critical Studies in Television, Critical Studies in Television, vol. 3, issue 2, Autumn, Manchester University Press, 2008, p. 29.

[17] See “Se acerca el final”,

[18] 75% of Endemol was purchased on May 14, 2007 by the “Edam Acquisition” consortium composed in equal parts by Mediacinco Cartera (whose 25% is controlled by Mediaset Investment and 75% by Telecinco), Goldman Sachs and Cyrte, a John De Mol-related fund specializing in the TLC sector.

[19] See Sessa’s interview “Roberto Sessa della Grundy a TvBlog: Un errore non aver realizzato Yo soy Bea in Italia”, The Italian case also contained a political scandal. In December 2007, the press published transcriptions of phone interceptions between Silvio Berlusconi, then head of the Opposition, and Agostino Saccà. Berlusconi recommended Saccà some unknown actresses. In one of the transcripts, Betty la Fea is explicitly mentioned; actress Elena Russo was referred to as being in close talks for an unknown role. In the aftermath of the scandal, Saccà resigned and on August 1st, 2008 RAI’s Administrative Board moved him to RAI’s commercial division .

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