This weekend, the 2011 National Association of Latino Independent Producers Conference is meeting in Newport Beach. Now in its 12th year, the confab is attended annually by Latino actors, executives, producers, and those interested in Latino film and television content. This year’s theme is “The New Now: Defining the Future Together”. But the most recent TV report card from the National Latino Media Council accused the four major TV networks of declining Latino diversity both in front of and behind the camera. “This was a terrible year for Latinos at the networks,” summed up NMLC president Alex Nogales. And among broadcast pilots for the 2011-2012 season, there’s only the CBS pilot starring Rob Schneider as a confirmed bachelor who has just married into a tight-knit Mexican-American family, and Fox’s Little In Common which includes a Latin family. The last Latino show on a network was ABC’s telenovela adaptation Ugly Betty which debuted to critical acclaim in 2006 but never enjoyed the network’s full support. When it was cancelled a year ago, Deadline TV contributor Diane Haithman first talked with its 36-year-old showrunner Silvio Horta and then again after the NLMC report card came out:
DEADLINE: What are your thoughts about the National Latino Media Council’s network report card?
SILVIO HORTA: Look, I think there are 50 million Latinos in the U.S. To have more Latino faces and more Latinos working in the industry would seem not just good for diversity, it seems like good business. Personally, I’d rather see accurate and well-done portrayals, and a really thought-out process to create an infrastructure for hiring. That for me is more important than just filling the slots. I don’t want to see more Latino reality TV actors for a cook-off or something. That’s ridiculous. It’s a bigger conversation than an A,B,C, or D grade.
DEADLINE: Ugly Betty is now rerun on the TV Guide Network. But it’s easy to forget the huge amount of press that surrounded the ABC debut of this show based on the Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, La Fea.
HORTA: It was a great show that I think made its imprint more than some shows, but I didn’t get the impression that was happening. It’s funny, as I was going through it, it didn’t hit me. You are just so busy. You’re in your own bubble, you are just trying to get the thing right, to get the scripts ready. Once the show went off the air, I’ve gotten some perspective. I’ve only recently gotten a sense of what it was. For me, it was important that they be a Latino family, an immigrant family, but that they not be all one-dimensional. I think everyone could relate to these people, and yet they were very specific to who they are and where they are from, without the drum roll: Heeeere’s the Latin character. Heeere’s the gay character. The point of the show was not putting everyone in a box. Everyone is who they are. Wilhelmina is African American, Betty is first generation Mexican American, and Justin was gay. But the show wasn’t about that.
DEADLINE: It wasn’t an issue show.
HORTA: I never wanted it to be that. Even when we dealt with an issue, we were very careful for it not to become an issue show. When we dealt with immigration issues, it was just about how this is a really good story, so let’s just tell it. That will have more impact than to make it special or think that it’s special.
DEADLINE: Do you see any shows on the air now that were influenced by what you did? Like Glee?
HORTA: Sure, there are similarities. But I think Ugly Betty was its own thing. That was my humor and my sensibility. And if executives are saying some show could work because Betty did, then I’m glad. But I hate to sort of take a stance like “my show changed the landscape of television”. It sounds obnoxious.
DEADLINE: How did you get on the show?
HORTA: I was doing a pilot for ABC called Westside about real estate agents in L.A. at the time. I had read about ABC’s plan for a U.S. version of Ugly Betty, and it just jumped out at me because I knew my family would watch it. And I liked the title. My pilot didn’t go, and I went off traveling for a while because I needed a break. Then I heard that Reveille’s Ben Silverman and Teri Weinberg and others wanted to talk to me about the telenovela. I honestly didn’t know how to make it a show for American TV. I remember getting on the phone with Ben and Teri and saying: “Here’s what I think the show is: Betty is an undercover FBI agent.” And there was dead silence on the phone. So I said, “…Or maybe not.” One of the things they said to me is to stop trying to make a version of the show that is going to be a hit. To just make the version that I want to make. So I did. I remember having a meeting with them, and Salma Hayek who is dynamic and passionate said the lead had to be a Latina. That was very important to her, and very important to me. My question was, Can we find that person? Because if we didn’t find that person, this wasn’t going anywhere. I wrote her as a first-generation American. That part was not hard for me because I was one. I’m Cuban American. I grew up in Miami.
DEADLINE: Then what happened?
HORTA: There was a casting director, and America Ferrera was the person we started with. There was nobody else. Somebody asked me, Do you know America Ferrera, and I had heard of her but I hadn’t seen her movies. But they were saying she’s perfect, she’s great, etc. Salma just really went to bat for her at every point with the studio and the network. And at the point that the show got picked up, there was a lot of doubt and questions and debate, and when we finally got the signoff it wasn’t an enthusiastic signoff. It was like, well, we’ll see if it works. That’s when it became clear to me that I’m ultimately responsible. It doesn’t matter what these executives think, or what they push, or what their various agendas are. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work, it’s on you. And so at that point I just sort of started to go for broke with everybody. It’s just one of those things. It worked out.
DEADLINE: Did you know that right away?
HORTA: No, we didn’t, actually. When we were picked up, I wake up the day of the upfronts in New York in 2006, I open up the newspaper, and we were “Betty The Ugly, Fridays at 8 o’clock”. They changed the title without telling me, and they put us on Friday nights. Luckily, we didn’t end up actually airing on Fridays. But that was the beginning. I think when the pilot was shown to the television critics at the press tour in Los Angeles that year, so much was written by them about the show that I think that momentum helped move the us to Thursday nights. I tell you it was rough, very shaky, at the beginning.
DEADLINE: Was the network always OK with using the word “ugly”?
HORTA: There was talk about it. It was such a strong word. And then they wanted Betty The Ugly. I said, wait a minute, are you trying to do a literal translation of the original title? They were like, no, no, no — it’s like Alexander The Great, and Richard The Kindhearted, or Conan The Barbarian. I’m like, yeah, but Betty The Ugly? I just kept calling the show Ugly Betty internally and refused to acknowledge the other title, and they came around. I was like, Come on, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to know what sounds right. It felt often times like they couldn’t just embrace the show for what it was. Instead they kept trying to put it into a box of what they wanted the show to be. And that was tough.
DEADLINE: How much did that bother you?
HORTA: Look, most shows that have legs are going to have ups and downs. Nothing is perfect all the way through. In my opinion, you have to stand by it when things get a little tough. If you care about it and you want it, you use that as an opportunity. But, honestly, I think it comes down to taste, and how people see it. There’s a tendency at some networks to micromanage to the point of really hurting what ends up being on the air. It’s very easy to blame the writers, but most people don’t realize the process to get that one hour of television. The amount of cooks in the kitchen. And the amount of notes. There are hours of notes. Typically, on average an hour of notes on an outline from the studio, and an hour of notes from the network, and sometimes they contradict each other. And then an hour of notes on the cut. And so three hours of notes on each thing. So let’s say that’s six hours of going back and forth. That’s average. When I found the process very helpful is when we sort of hit a wall, or when we got clear general notes — not these nitpicky specifics that I think are destructive to the process.
DEADLINE: Such as?
HORTA: There’s a tendency to over-explain things. A lot of notes are geared toward: “Restate this. Clarify this.” Finally the actors will say: “Why don’t these people sound like human beings any more? They are just deliverers of information.” To make it clearer just ends up making it longer, so you end up having to cut it anyway. It doesn’t really help any, and you don’t need it. So there is a lot of that.
DEADLINE: What else?
HORTA: The tone was always the issue. Is this a drama, or is this a comedy? That was always the issue. It was a very tricky tone. Sometimes we’d get it right, sometimes we didn’t, but when it worked, it was really great. I think Glee is probably the closest thing that captures that tone. It is really hard, and if it’s done badly, it’s really painful.
HORTA: There was a fear about the transsexual storyline. I think that’s the only one. That was a storyline that I had in my mind before the show was picked up, I knew there was a dead brother, and I thought wouldn’t it be cool if he came back as a she. And the one thing the network said is, You can’t drag this out. So I think it was a good thing to have happen in the middle of the first season. But I think, ultimately, there was not a lot of support for doing stories about being a transsexual or what life as a transsexual was.
DEADLINE: What are your thoughts about the difficulties of being a showrunner?
HORTA: Running a show is increasingly more difficult and complicated as time goes on, as shows are increasingly seen more as brands, as franchises. There’s video games, there’s books, there’s T-shirts — all that shit falls under the showrunners purview, along with the actual job of making the show. It’s complicated. A show employs 200-250 people. You have an operating budget of something like $100 million. Obviously you need to have somebody run it. You may need a COO, but somebody has to be the CEO. Ultimately, who is the network calling? That simple question of who’s in charge you need to be able to answer very easily.
DEADLINE: And if you don’t?
HORTA: It leads to chaos. From what I’ve seen, a lot of less experienced show creators are always partnered with someone who so the saying goes keeps the trains running. What I’ve seen more often than not is these partnerships go sour. And that ultimately can lead to the premature death of the show. In August of every year, several shows always shut down. And the press release always says: “Yes, we intended to give the writers more time, we wanted regroup, blah… blah… blah…” But what’s happening is that the show is imploding for one of two reasons: either complete mismanagement or infighting by people who are partnered together and don’t see eye-to-eye. And it just doesn’t have to be that way.
DEADLINE: In 2008, Ugly Betty moved from Los Angeles to New York to take advantage of New York’s new tax incentives, prompting the California state legislature to offer $500 million in new tax credits to stop runaway TV and film production, the so-called Ugly Betty law…
HORTA: We weren’t forced to move out there. At first, I wanted the series in New York. But we were told that it was too expensive. The network had designated one show that year that was going to be based in New York, and it wasn’t us. And then, two years in, I get a call asking if I would be interested in moving to New York. I said, it depends on America Ferrera. And she was thrilled. And I had always wanted to do it for creative reasons. For them, it was strictly financial. It was really exciting to me. I’m glad we did it. I think so much of what we ended up with was so terrific and great. But it was starting over again. It was rough there for a bit, but I don’t regret it.
DEADLINE: Were you surprised when Ugly Betty was canceled?
HORTA: I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed obviously. But I saw it coming. Everyone did. Especially when they announced that they were moving us from Thursday nights to Friday nights. I remember telling one of the executives on the day that it was announced that it’s hard not to feel like it was the beginning of the end — and it was. But, look, there are very few shows that get to last for four years and 85 episodes. I would have liked to go on for one more year. One more season, and I would have gotten to tell most of the stories I wanted to tell and do certain things that I wanted to do. But, that being said, it was not too shabby. I’m happy with how we ended and what we got to do in the time we got to do it. That’s how it works.
DEADLINE: I’m assuming you’d like to do another TV series?
HORTA: I am thrilled that, with all the issues that I had and everything I did, I had that experience. Next time I know what to be careful with, and I made mistakes that I’ll try not to make again. I love the business. For everything that’s wrong with it, I still love it.
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