How Netflix Grew Spain’s ‘Cable Girls’ As It Evolved Itself

It’s game over. Spain’s “Cable Girls,” Netflix’s longest-running non-U.S. original series, will soon be history, its final five episodes of a two-part season five released on Friday.

No other Netflix original series made outside the U.S. has yet made it to five seasons, and only a few have been so popular. Aired on Netflix from Feb. 14, “Cable Girls’” season five, part one, proved the third most-binged SVOD series in the world over its first week of release, according to TV Time.

Announced in March 2016, and produced with Bambu Producciones, Spain’s first Netflix original series, which bowed in April 2017, is set in early 1929 as Alba (Blanca Suárez), a petty thief, timid country lass Marga (Nadia de Santiago) and upper-class flapper Carlota (Ana Fernandez) are hired as switchboard operators at Spain’s sole telephony company, in central Madrid.

That set-up promised the same romantic melodrama infusing Bambu’s “Gran Hotel” and “Velvet,” the first Spanish originals to play to huge audiences in Latin America without being dubbed into so-called neutral Spanish.

But “Cable Girls” has gone its own way, especially in its final season, and its growth speaks to Netflix’s evolution at large.

As “Cable Girls” draws to an end, Variety sat down with Diego Ávalos, VP of original content for Spain; Teresa Fernández-Valdés, Bambu co-founder and “Cable Girls” producer and co-writer; and Ana Fernández, one of its stars, to discuss the series and Netflix’s growth over the last four years. Here’s what we’ve learned from the hit show.

Going Out With a (Bigger) Bang

In the first quarter of 2016, when Netflix announced “Cable Girls,” it already had 77.7 million household accounts and a $100 share price. No company in Spain, save Telefonica, had the economic muscle to make high-end series at Netflix’s level. “Netflix’s arrival in Spain allowed us to work and think with more ambition,” says producer Teresa Fernández-Valdés. Four years on, Netflix is trading at $485 a share and boasts 182.9 million clients worldwide. “Cable Girls” has grown its audience throughout its five seasons, Netflix says, and, regarding budgets, Netflix also recognizes that the ambition of the story and show have grown season on season.

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Diego Avalos, Ana Fernández and Teresa Fernández Valdés Credit: Netflix / Bambu Producciones

Opening Up to Exteriors

One case in point, regarding ambition, is the use of exteriors. The first season’s action largely focuses on a number of fixed sets — the telephone exchange, the girls’ pension, the bar opposite — built at the Adisar Studios in Villaviciosa de Odón, says Fernández Valdés.

By season five, however, 60% of the series had been shot in exteriors, outside the Adisar Studios, at, for example, Toledo’s Lillo airport, Segovia’s former prison, or villages outside Madrid. Over the last four years, Netflix series have often opened up to new locales. “Money Heist’s” action veers in season three from Panama’s San Blas islands to temples in Thailand to a monastery in Italy, for instance. “It’s been a case of each day, a different location, mounting lorries all the time. We had to take that step forward, and Netflix allowed that journey,” says Fernández-Valdés.

Ratcheting Up the Action

The first four seasons of “Cable Girls” take place over 1929-32, in the run-up to Spain’s 1931 Republic. Season five unspools in 1939 in the last months of a desperate Spanish Civil War with resistance to Francisco Franco’s Nationalists crumbling. There’s a superb scene in the first half of season five where Pablo, who marries Marga and couldn’t hurt a fly, is drafted to Madrid’s Republican Western front. He’s taken to the trenches, which suddenly fall under attack, then drives his commanding officer in a desperate mission for help, ending up running over an exposed wheat field, with two Nationalist soldiers in pursuit and almost certain to be shot in the back. Season five is packed with such battle action.

Ending the series in the Civil War was a decision made for creative reasons, Avalos explains: “As we were writing the final seasons, our focus was on the journey of each of the characters that fans held dear and the Spanish Civil War was the ending that a story like theirs needed,” Avalos comments.

However, the war scenes also dovetail with Netflix’s expansion. More action, less niche is a trend at the streaming giant in general, argues Guy Bisson, research director at London-based Ampere Analytics. “Netflix is moving more towards broad audience demographics simply because its customer base is broadening demographically,” he adds, suggesting that the fastest growing subscriber age groups for Netflix is now found among over-45s, and that historical or war-themed drama plays well with this demo. The series certainly has a trans-generational appeal, adds Ávalos. “That connects with the way Netflix membership has grown.”

Priming Gender Issues

In season one, the cable girls juggle love and desire with, from the very get-go, a desire for freedom and independence, which runs foul of the epoch’s pervasive machismo. “It was an act of some courage to make ‘Cable Girls,’” says Avalos. “It wasn’t quite what was expected of Netflix.” As early as season one, episode three, Carlota, though in a relationship with telephone technician Miguel, surprises Sara in a darker corner of a bar and kisses her on the lips. Their queer love story is a major narrative backbone of season three, released in Sept. 2018.

The series is perfectly contemporary, says Ana Fernández, who plays Carlota. “All the characters, but maybe especially Carlota and Sara/Oscar could fit into a modern series,” she argues. By season five, as Lidia flies back from New York to rescue Sofia, her adopted daughter, who suffers a heart condition, from battle and then summary execution, the cable girls are now cable women and have settled most affairs of the heart. When, as Madrid falls, Lidia is incarcerated in a female correction center, the cable girls set out, if a trailer for part two is anything to go by, to spring not only her but every other female inmate from the hell hole.

Indeed, in season five, the girls set out “to fight for all women in Spain, as a reflection of the rest of the world,” says Fernández-Valdés. “The series is no longer about egotism, what each cable girl wants for herself,” adds Ana Fernández. Comments Bisson: “Race, gender, sexuality and gender identity are all very, very hot at the moment across the board not just for Netflix but for commissioners in general — linear and SVOD.” Here, “Cable Girls” got in relatively early.

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Las chicas del cable Credit: Enrique Baro Ubach/Netflix

Netflix: A Needed Local Player

“Just as ‘Cable Girls’ has grown as a series, Netflix has matured during these years, in production terms and as a service and business,” says Ávalos. One instance: season one of “Cable Girls” was greenlit out of Los Angeles with Erik Barmack, Kelly Luegenbiehl and Amanda Krentzman taking producer credits. Season 5 is produced by Netflix out of Spain where it has established its first European Production Hub, and has produced its most popular foreign-language series ever, “La Casa de Papel” (“Money Heist”), whose season four, released in April, was seen by a projected 65 million household accounts, according to a letter to shareholders following Netflix’s first-quarter results.

Netflix has announced at least 20 upcoming Spanish series, new and returning, or movies in some phase of production in Spain. There’s consensus that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated change. One is Netflix’s place on the international production scene. “Cable Girls” bows out as the first series in Spain from a company that was once feared as a disruptor but is now regarded as ever more an integral and hugely needed part of the local film-TV landscape.

Jamie Lang contributed to this article.