“Music is a great opportunity, but you have to reinvent yourself,” says Ruiz, photographed Nov. 28 at NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises in Hialeah, Fla.

“Music is a great opportunity, but you have to reinvent yourself,” says Ruiz, photographed Nov. 28 at NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises in Hialeah, Fla.

Gesi Schilling

When Mario Ruiz was asked to help cast Telemundo's upcoming series Guerra de Ídolos (War of Idols), he had one goal: to find musicians who could act rather than actors who could sing.

"We wanted to make sure we could transmit the feelings of a real singer," says Ruiz, 60, a Colombian-born Miami resident who has spent his career working in labels and TV.

Indeed, authenticity is gold for the NBC-owned network, which draws an average of 849,000 adults during primetime evening hours, according to Nielsen, with scripted, edgy "super series" -- more Narcos than Days of Our Lives -- and highly produced musical biopics.

Guerra, which began shooting in November and will air in 2017, is the Empire-esque tale of two Latin music dynasties and marks Telemundo's scripted music series debut, "with a lot of romance and a lot of action," he promises.

For Ruiz -- a University of California, Los Angeles grad who broke into the music business as a shipping clerk at A&M Records in Los Angeles, then signed acts like Chayanne as head of A&R at CBS Records International -- Guerra is a major challenge in a new post that, since March of this year, has the married father of two teenage daughters overseeing music content for the network's original programming, including its scripted series and live entertainment.

Says Ruiz: "The exciting thing here is finding that new talent and helping them grow."

Ruiz’s stress reliever: using the ceiling as a pencil dartboard.

Ruiz’s stress reliever: using the ceiling as a pencil dartboard. Gesi Schilling

You formerly oversaw all on-air talent before moving to music in 2016. Why the shift?

The network is putting major focus on music because we see a great opportunity for growth. We are generators of our own primetime content, and with my boss, [Telemundo president] Luis Silberwasser, we also saw an opportunity to create content on the music side. But music on its own doesn't create [audience] traffic; it grows if it has a story to tell within a bigger project. Case in point, we were the first to do biomusicals, like Celia. It definitely opened our eyes.

So the Celia Cruz treatment was an "A-ha" moment?

Definitely. That's why we moved forward with our second project, Hasta Que Te Conocí, based on the life of Juan Gabriel. [On Nov. 20] it had the biggest finale of a scripted series in the history of this network. After Celia we saw the possibilities, and next year we're producing Jenni Rivera: Mariposa de Barrio in partnership with the Jenni Rivera estate.

Ruiz moved to Miami Beach with his family in 1968. In this family photo, taken in Colombia, he sits on his father’s lap.

Ruiz moved to Miami Beach with his family in 1968. In this family photo, taken in Colombia, he sits on his father’s lap. Gesi Schilling

How did you approach the casting for Guerra?

We looked for singers who could act, and we were able to do that with five of the characters. The lead actress, María León, is an exotic, beautiful woman and the former singer of Mexican alt-pop group Playa Limbo. We also have a new artist, Luis Figueroa, who's signed to [Marc Anthony and Michel Vega's] Magnus Entertainment. Then we have Christian Pagán, who is signed to Universal Music, [and] Pedro Capó, who is signed to Sony Music. The labels were very helpful and open in this process. We auditioned between 15 and 20 people for each of the singers' parts, and in the last two months I've listened to 150 to 200 songs. We want the music to match the storyline, and most of the music will be original.

Who is your target audience?

Spanish speakers, and yes, we try to bring in the millennials. At the end of the day, these kids are not watching Spanish-language TV, but they know Spanish-language songs. They know J Balvin. They're still involved in the culture; maybe not as much as we want, but they do make an appointment to watch. 

Telemundo’s successful series Sin Senos Si Hay Paraíso (Without Breasts There Is Paradise) was Ruiz’s first “start-to-finish” musical project for the network. “That’s why it’s up on my wall,” he says.

Telemundo’s successful series Sin Senos Si Hay Paraíso (Without Breasts There Is Paradise) was Ruiz’s first “start-to-finish” musical project for the network. “That’s why it’s up on my wall,” he says.Gesi Schilling

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.