Vaya Con Demos
Broadcast, cable networks hope to attract Hispanic viewers with English-language shows that reflect their experience
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/21/2004 7:00:00 PM
If your 3-year-old knows that azul means blue in Spanish and occasionally greets you with hola, chances are she has been watching Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer. The show, No. 1 on TV among kids 2 to 5 years old, is about a bilingual Latina who travels the world with her best friend, Boots the Monkey. Kids love participating in her escapades—and her cultural background peppers the show with personality.
Nickelodeon is not alone in offering multicultural programming. Broadcast and cable networks have seen the light, too. First, it's the right thing to do. Second, it's the smart thing. Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S., jumping nearly 60% between 1990 and 2000. According to the recent U.S. Census, Latinos represent some 13% of U.S. population. And they have money to spend: almost $1 trillion by 2007, according to the Santiago Solutions Group.
Which is why networks are working hard to attract them to English-language network shows. "Kids are growing up in a more diverse world than ever before," says Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Television. "The more that we can reinforce that on television, the better. What's good for the audience is always good for business. You have to take the audience-first approach to get to the good business."
Dora isn't the only Hispanic on Nickelodeon. The Brothers Garcia concerns two brothers whose family is Latino but whose culture is American. Upcoming Dora spinoff Go, Diego, Go features her lively 8-year-old cousin, and there's also Twister on Rocket Power.
"We very deliberately wanted to show diversity on the air," adds Zarghami. "We specifically cast the net as wide as we could into the Latino community. We are not trying to tell stories about being Hispanic; we are trying to tell stories from the backdrop of being Hispanic."
To gain that authenticity, broadcast and cable networks are casting Latino talent and putting Latino writers, directors, and producers behind the cameras. "Our goal is to make ABC look like America in all of its diversity," says Carmen Smith, vice president, talent development programs, for ABC Entertainment Television Group. "We are letting Latino viewers know that we care, we are interested, and they are an important part of our programming community."
To that end, ABC searches for new, diverse talent to cast in its shows. Over the next three months, the network will put on six regional acting showcases in April and May, four of them in the Southwest, focusing on Latino-Americans and Native Americans.
"There are a lot of talented folks that may not be able to get to Los Angeles," Smith says. "That's why we are doing the outreach. If somebody pops big, we'll be able to fly them back here."
The results can spell big success for networks. ABC's The George Lopez Show, about a Latino family in Los Angeles, wins its Friday 9 p.m. time period among adults 18-49. Among Hispanic viewers, George Lopez is the 12th-rated scripted program this season, 13th among adults 18-49.
Still, even with the best of intentions, the market rules.
Going into this season, Fox had three shows it was promoting specifically in Latino communities: Skin, Luis, and The Ortegas. Skin and Luis were canceled, and TheOrtegas never made it on the air.
Despite the failures, Fox continues to cast Latino talent in its shows and develop pilots with Latino producers, such as Rene Echevarria's Ricochet, from Touchstone; and Mark Perez's yet-to-be-titled sitcom about a Cuban family in Miami, from Carsey- Werner-Mandabach, comedian Steve Martin, and Joan Stein. "Such a large number of Latinos watch Fox. We have to make sure we are constantly seeking out that talent," says Mitsy Wilson, senior vice president of diversity development at Fox Entertainment Group.
Of all the networks, PBS has consistently ensured diversity. "We represent all of America, so we portray all of America," says John Wilson, senior VP of programming. "PBS has been a diversity leader for decades," first with Sesame Street and today with such shows as American Family and upcoming kids show Maya and Miguel. It's designed to entertain all kids and to support English-language acquisition and usage, particularly among second-language learners.
"With Maya and Miguel, we set out to portray Hispanic culture in a show anyone could watch," Wilson explains. "Anytime you can break down walls and break down stereotypes, you can cause understanding to occur. People are less afraid of what they understand, and that is good for society."
American Family—starring Sophia Loren, Edward James Olmos, Sonia Braga, Constance Marie, and Esai Morales—is a drama about a Latino family in East Los Angeles struggling to bridge the gap between cultures.
"American Family draws you in," Wilson says. "You learn that just because someone has another culture or language in their family, "doesn't make them alien to you."
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