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Viva la diferencia or get really lousy ratings.

Jim McNamara, loquacious president and CEO of NBC's newly acquired Telemundo network, said he quickly learned a make-or-break lesson: "Hispanic sensibilities and viewing preferences are vastly different from the general audience's."

On Spanish-language television, the nightly novela (soap opera) is king, and reruns are a foreign language. That's why Telemundo's prime-time lineup of Pedro el Escamoso, Vale Todo and El Clon airs each and every weeknight without repeats. If NBC operated under the same model, he said, the unvarying Monday-Friday schedule might be a hit parade of Friends, Will & Grace, The West Wing and ER. Except that Spanish-speaking viewers wouldn't watch any of those programs, even if they were dubbed.

"Friends in Spanish would get a zero rating," McNamara said. "When I switched over from English television, it took me awhile to get that through my thick skull. We experimented with sitcoms dubbed from English to Spanish and others produced originally in Spanish. And the audience doesn't react to them. The audience reacts to the novelas."

NBC took control of Telemundo in April and hopes to catch Univision, which draws roughly 70 percent of the Spanish-speaking audience. The networks are targeting an exploding Hispanic population that is nearing 40-million and comprises 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Most of Telemundo's younger viewers have relatively low incomes but nonetheless are prime targets for advertisers, said McNamara, who was born and raised in Panama and speaks fluent Spanish. "They've arrived here from a different country with no brand loyalty," he said.

CBS announced that British actor Paul Blackthorne (Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, Holby City) has joined the cast of Presidio Med. He will play Dr. Matt Slingerland, described as a handsome renegade internist who likes to bend the rules.

"Paul has a great energy," says Lydia Woodward, the show's creator and executive producer. "He's a fresh face for American television and has the irreverent spirit we were looking for in this character."

Presidio Med is about physicians who run a medical group in San Francisco. It will preview at 10 p.m. Sept. 24 and premiere in its regular time slot at 10 p.m. Sept. 25.

The WB's new fall drama Birds of Prey is getting a new Harley Quinn.

A week after executive producer Brian Robbins said Sherilyn Fenn would not play the role of psychiatrist turned Joker's moll, the part has been recast with Mia Sara.

Based on the DC Comics story, Birds of Prey follows the adventures of Barbara Gordon (once Batgirl, now Oracle); Helena Kyle, the Huntress (the love child of Batman and Catwoman), and Black Canary (a young psychic named Dinah) as they navigate the New Gotham, devoid of the heros of old and such stock characters as the Joker and Mr. Freeze.

Sara first hit the scene in the mid '80s in the movies Legend and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Last year she appeared in the CBS miniseries Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story.

_ Times wires