Oh, but what happens inside: Dreams come true, plucky girls from poor families marry millionaires, love triangles tear marriages apart, evil drug lords meet justice and plumbers court princesses, all on a daily basis.
NBCUniversal. It's a sopa-to-nuez operation, with everything from writers rooms and casting offices to miles of wardrobe racks and post-production equipment housed within two-story buildings.
Perhaps the most telling resource on the Telemundo lot these days is tucked away in an alley that runs between the stages. It's small but significant: a New York street set built for the production of the 2012 novela adapted from the 2002 Jennifer Lopez movie "Maid in Manhattan."
The homegrown production boom at Telemundo reflects the company's move during the past two years to make a 90-degree shift in its programming strategy, focusing on novelas and other shows produced in Spanish but with U.S. sensibilities. That means more soaps set in places like Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and far fewer imports from novela factories in Latin America.
The strategy, led by Telemundo Media prexy Emilio Romano since his arrival in 2011, gives the company much greater control over its primetime lineup, and has had the added benefit of expanding its international distribution business. Telemundo has long faced a Hertz-Avis style battle in its competition with the larger and more successful Univision for a slice of the domestic Spanish-lingo TV audience. With that market growing rapidly, Romano sees a clear path for Telemundo and its cable sibling Mun2 in appealing to viewers who see themselves as increasingly bicultural.
"We create original content by U.S. Hispanics for U.S. Hispanics," Romano says. "We become closer to our audience by reflecting the feelings and emotions of people living in this country. We're the Spanish-language media company that produces the most primetime programming in the U.S. We have been capturing an increased share of the audience, and that gives us comfort knowing that our strategy is working."
Telemundo has been riding a ratings wave for the past two years that started with its runaway hit novela "La reina del sur" ("Queen of the South" -- think Pablo Escobar in a micro-miniskirt). This year, it has scored with novela "La patrona" (a woman fights naysayers to take over a mining company) and reality skein "La Voz Kids," a Hispanic family-friendly spin on NBC hit "The Voice."
"Voz" has averaged 2.16 million viewers a week since its May 5 debut. The decision to tweak the format from the NBC rendition by focusing on moppet contestants was a calculated effort to encourage family viewing, which has paid off.
Among the many original series in the works for Telemundo are an Espanol take on "Top Chef" and a gameshow from Ryan Seacrest's production company.
But as much as Telemundo is branching out into nontraditional genres, Romano and his team know all too well that the backbone of the network remains its primetime telenovelas -- the hourlong serials that run Monday to Friday, usually for 24-32 weeks. The shows do not repeat, which means the network demands a plentiful pipeline of product, with new 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. entries launching year-round on a staggered schedule. They go head-to-head with Univision's staple of four novelas that air Monday-Friday, starting at 7 p.m.
Because telenovelas are so central to TV throughout Latin America, the competition among networks to lock up exclusive deals with top producers and studio suppliers is fierce. The battles between Mexico's Televisa and TV Azteca are legendary (over novela assets, among other things).
Univision has deep ties to Televisa (which owns about 38% of Univision) and thus has a lock on its prolific output of hits. Univision has leveraged its clout and affiliation with Televisa to ensure it has exclusivity from major players like Venezuela's Venevision and Colombia's Caracol TV.
Faced with the problem of finding consistent sources of high-quality programming, Telemundo opted to provide an inhouse solution, ramping up a production operation that now delivers more than 750 hours of novela programming a year through the Miami studio and another production facility in Mexico.
Telemundo's programming team frequently draws on existing formats from outside producers for source material, but these are reversioned for a U.S. sensibility, with an emphasis on the Mexican experience, because that is the single largest component of the U.S. Latino population (about 63% according to the 2010 U.S. Census).
Contrary to the assumptions of many mainstream media execs, Spanish-speaking viewers are hardly monolithic. Dialects, attitudes and conversational conventions vary widely according to region. And there's a melting-pot effect that comes over time for immigrants and their second-generation offspring.
Joshua Mintz, exec veep of scripted programming and general manager of Telemundo Studios, says the network produces different kinds of novelas that most often reflect the color, sound and flavor of Mexico, but are balanced with the reality of life in the U.S. "The fact that we have the capacity to produce five to six novelas a year now is really amazing compared to where we were a couple of years ago," says Mintz.
NBCUniversal's willingness to invest in making Telemundo more competitive in its battle against Univision and other outlets vying for Hispanic auds has been a spark for the domestic Spanish-language marketplace. Univision also has been on an expansion push, with plans to launch Fusion, an English-lingo news-and-lifestyle network with ABC News later this year, and investing in Robert Rodriguez's startup, English-lingo entertainment channel El Rey.