Cable sets pace via assimilated Hispanic fare

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While the major broadcast networks still take heat for the lack of representation of Hispanics on the air, the cable dial is alive with fare depicting the lives of assimilated Latinos.

In July, Nickelodeon started airing "The Brothers Garcia," its first English-language sitcom with an all-Latino cast and production team. The show is seen as a breakthrough for its nuanced depiction of Mexican-American family life.

COMPETES WITH `MALCOLM'

Nickelodeon is sufficiently confident to put it up against Fox's hit "Malcolm in the Middle" on Sunday night, and solid ratings suggest a likely commitment beyond this season.

Then came "Dora The Explorer," a play-along animated adventure series for the preschool set, featuring a young bilingual Latina that runs on Nickelodeon's children's programming block Monday through Friday.

And in October, the network will introduce "Taina," the story of a Puerto Rican-American teen at a high school for the performing arts in Manhattan wh0 has a slightly wacky, old-fashioned extended family.

Nickelodeon targeted the Latino community with a print and radio campaign for "Dora" in Spanish and English. In addition, Nickelodeon bought banners on Yupi.com, a Spanish-language portal.

To reach Hispanic families at the grass-roots level, Nickelodeon set up booths at Kraft Ethnic Festivals around the country and trotted out Nickelodeon's new young Latino stars to sign autographs.

On Sept. 16, at a Mexican Independence Festival near East Los Angeles, for example, "Taina" star Christina Vidal was to sing before an expected crowd of 100,000.

NOT SURPRISING MOVE

Monica Gadsby, senior VP-director of Hispanic media for Starcom Worldwide, Chicago, isn't surprised Nickelodeon is pulling out the stops.

"If you start analyzing the demographics for the country in general, it's no secret why this is happening," she says.

Ms. Gadsby offered some eye-opening statistics: 52% of all Los Angeles children aged 6 to 11 are Hispanic; in New York, the percentage is 24%; in Houston, it's 33%. In the next 20 years, she projects the Hispanic kids' population in the U.S. will grow by 54% to 5.96 million, while non-Hispanic kids' numbers will actually drop by 3% to 19.7 million.

"Hispanic kids are fueling the growth," says Ms. Gadsby. She adds the Nickelodeon shows portend a new direction to the nature of mainstream TV. Latin music jumped into America's Top 40 radio with hot artists such as Ricky Martin. So Ms. Gadsby believes other aspects of Hispanic culture will soon become integrated into American culture as a whole. TV, ever the mirror of the world outside, will show the change.

AHEAD OF THE CURVE

Nickelodeon is just a little ahead of the curve, she says.

"While `The Brothers Garcia' is supposed to be mainstream, it plays off insights unique to Hispanic culture," says Ms. Gadsby. "It redefines what mainstream is."

If Jeff Valdez has his way, it won't end there.

Mr. Valdez, executive producer for "The Brothers Garcia," says he's had discussions with Nickelodeon about another potential series. The name of the animated program is "Stuck in the Middle"; the show is about a 12-year-old Hispanic boy who shuttles between the barrio and a ritzy neighborhood. Mr. Valdez is also trying to assemble the first English-language cable network aimed at Latinos, SiTV.

Nickelodeon has a commitment to tell kids' stories from a rainbow perspective, says Cyma Zarghami, exec VP-general manager. "Kids are growing up in a much richer cultural environment because the population is changing."

GOOD BUSINESS

Nickelodeon's brass has long understood that the Hispanic market is also good business. Its research shows that 15% of the basic cable channel's total viewership is Hispanic, and it is the No. 1 kids' cable network among Hispanics by far. In addition, Nickelodeon gets a viewership boost by airing three important properties in a children's block on Telemundo Network.

Nick's "Blues Clues," "Hey Arnold" and "Rugrats" go head-to-head against Univision's "De Cabeza!" ("On Your Head") on Saturday morning.

Felipe Korzenny, principal of Cheskin Research, a Hispanic market specialist, agrees. He points out that today, when visiting a department store, consumers are just as likely to hear Cuban rhythms as the bland Muzak of yesteryear. The change is brought on by the popularity of stars such as "Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera. The general market is following them," he says.

PAY TIER COURTS MARKET

As Nickelodeon makes its mark in basic cable, pay-tier TV networks such as Showtime Networks and Time Warner Entertainments' HBO have long been courting the Hispanic market. At the pay-tier level, networks measure success by subscriber acquisition and retention, not the raw numbers they deliver.

But Showtime moved the needle up a notch this summer with the debut of "Resurrection Boulevard," a gritty series about a family of boxers in East Los Angeles, the network's first one-hour drama produced by, and starring, Latinos. Mark Zakarin, exec VP-original programming for Showtime, says he's been inundated with e-mails and letters from ecstatic viewers.

BETTER REFLECTS CULTURE

"We're providing people with something they can't get anywhere else that they highly value," he says. "You can imagine what it's like in this country to grow up and, other than `Chico and the Man,' `Zorro' and `High Chaparral,' there are no depictions of your culture."

Showtime is said to have other Latino-themed projects in the pipeline.

Alex Nogales, president-CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and a constant critic of the TV industry, is, for once, encouraged by what he sees. "They're getting it right from a cultural point of view," he says.

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