Through all the speeches, video clips, celebrity walk-ons and dance numbers, one message dominated last month's upfronts for Spanish-language networks: Come fall, more U.S.-produced series from Latino-Americans will air in primetime than ever before.
A growing advertiser demand for original productions has prompted a shift to more U.S.-crafted content for the next TV season by Hispanic TV's "big two," the hybrid broadcast-and-cable services Univision and Telemundo, according to executives with both companies.
This trend emerges as competition for audience share among Hispanics is about to heat up, thanks to the growing assortment of new Spanish diginets, as well as the bilingual or Anglophone Latino-targeted services planning to launch this fall or next year.
Beyond that, the Hispanic networks face the same issues that confront general-market cable programmers and operators — how, and to what extent, to get involved with such convergence plays as digital video recorders, interactive TV, HDTV and home-networked television.
La hora del drama
Both Univision and NBC-owned Telemundo will have U.S.-originated weekly drama series in their lineups come September. Univision's first entry is Al Fido de la Ley
(At the Edge of the Law), which follows a Latino law firm in California that handles immigration cases. Episodes will be adapted from actual court cases.
Historias y Testigos (Investigative Stories) is Telemundo's hour. The story of an investigative reporter who works the beat along the U.S.-Mexican border is the network's first stab at weekly drama since the failed remodeling of Charlie's Angels and Starsky & Hutch (as Angeles and Reynoldo y Reyes, respectively) under former parent Sony Pictures Television in the late 1990s.
Telemundo also pulled the surprise development of the upfront season, landing Jennifer Lopez as the new programming force on its block. The entertainer signed a multiyear agreement to develop and serve as executive producer of domestically produced Spanish content, through her company Nuyorican Productions.
Although full details have yet to be disclosed — Lopez vanished immediately after a quick appearance at Telemundo's upfront — chief operating officer Alan Sokol told Multichannel News
the deal may also give Lopez opportunities to create bilingual shows for mun2 Television, Telemundo's bilingual cable channel for young adults.
"She's the perfect personification of the network," Sokol said.
First up: A primetime novela
(limited daily drama series) premiering in 2004, about a barrio girl who made good in the entertainment world, loosely based on J-Lo's rise to stardom. The series will be taped or filmed at an undetermined location.
Other projects under discussion include a weekly music and dance variety show, one or more weekly dramas, sitcoms, reality fare and other novelas. Lopez will supervise the shows, serving as co-executive producer with manager Benny Medina, her partner in Nuyorican.
"I see this opportunity as a way to connect to the Spanish-speaking audience in a different and more profound way than has been done in the past," she told Telemundo's upfront crowd. "I want to tell stories of Latinos who grow up here and live the American dream."
For now, Univision is taking a wait-and-see approach to the Lopez-Telemundo relationship. A few years ago, actress Salma Hayek announced plans to create Spanish-language work for Telemundo and other outlets. But Hayek, who was nominated for an Academy Award this year for Frida, has yet to put anything on Telemundo's air.
"I didn't lose a minute of sleep over this," said Ray Rodriguez, president and chief operating officer of Univision's TV networks unit, following his company's upfront event. "I want to see what she'll do for them first."
Two other Univision dramas, offered in novela
form and produced in-house, will also premiere this season.
Te Amare en Silencio
(I'll Love You in Silence), originally unveiled at a 2002 upfront presentation, features a deaf woman in pursuit of happiness in Los Angeles. The other, Rebeka, will give viewers the opportunity to determine how the main plot line turns out — which of three suitors will marry the lead character — via online votes.
Another Telemundo novela entry, La Ley del Silencio
(The Way of Silence), will depict the travails of a young priest serving the downtrodden in and around Houston. One of the recurring plot lines involves domestic violence.
At least four new series will premiere this summer and fall on mun2, one of three cable networks featured during the wave of upfronts. In the only weeknight adjustment to its primetime lineup, Off the Roof
will run at 10 p.m., extending the channel's two-hour variety/entertainment news series, The Roof.
The new show will focus on political, lifestyle and sports trends from the Western U.S. Off the Roof
replaces Chat, the live interactive talk hour, which will move to a primetime weekend slot.
Also on tap for weekends: the animated series Lugar Heights;
drama spoof Twisted Novela Theater; and Powergamer, which follows the video-game trail.
Separately, mun2 announced a relationship with the New Generation Latino Consortium, a new organization of 15 media, research and advertising entities designed to raise the programming and marketing profile of U.S. Hispanic citizens age 50 and under. Thus far, mun2 is the only Latino TV network on board.
The consortium seeks to raise the profile of younger Hispanic consumers through grassroots events, panel-discussion participation at various conferences and online activities.
Galavisión — the Univision-owned cable network that last year overhauled its format from one geared toward young adults to emphasize international news, sports and entertainment for all ages — will remain largely the same in 2003-04.
Galavisión now programs about 60 hours per week of live newscasts, sports and variety shows, the majority of which originate from Grupo Televisa S.A., the Mexico City-based broadcasting organization.
A quartet of new shows is on the docket as well, three in the news/sports category: Los Reporteros
(The Reporters); Por la Puerta Grande
(The Grand Entrance, on the celebrity watch); Accion
(Action) and Mas Deportes
Fox Sports en Español will join the growing roster of cable networks launching new award specials this year, with December's Premios Fox Sports
(Fox Sports Awards), to honor Latino athletes in baseball, boxing and soccer — perennial draws for Hispanic households.
"It's a great opportunity to profile the network and great for advertisers," said Fox Sports en Español general manager David Steinberg. "Something like this has never been done for the Latino community."
Univision will step onto the new award show bandwagon in 2004 with Premio Juventud
(The Youth Awards), recognizing teen talent in movies, TV, music and pop culture next summer.
Azteca's ad action
This year's upfront season also marked the first public display for general information and entertainment network Azteca America. The start-up hybrid showcases programs largely from owner TV Azteca, another major Mexican media player.
Over the last 16 months, Azteca America has built an affiliate base of 24 broadcast stations that reach 60 percent of all Latino TV households.
Two-thirds of Azteca's format is produced live from Mexico City, including Cada Manana
(Morning Time), a mid-morning magazine show; La Academia
(The Academy), an American Idol-type nightly variety hour which staged a concert in Los Angeles last year that was promoted in part by Time Warner Cable and other local cable operators; and various Hechos
newscasts throughout the day.
During its upfront presentation, Azteca America and TV Azteca officers maintained the channel would become relevant to U.S. viewers, despite its production roots in Mexico.
One means of doing this would be an offshoot of the network's strategy for cutting slices of Univision and Telemundo's advertising revenues — the liberal use of product placements.
Since most of the network's fare comes from one source, product placement, signage and special segments can be shaped quickly and, in many cases, be customized for U.S. play.
For one primetime novela, Azteca unveiled a scene shot in a McDonald's setting, with signs and "Big Mac" burgers prominently displayed as characters slurped down milkshakes from containers featuring the golden-arches logo.
Sponsorship and placement options, including screen bugs and other graphic identifiers, will be available throughout the day, officials said.
"We expect to become your best option," TV Azteca COO Mario San Roman told the upfront audience. "We enjoy being David, because every day, you have a new Goliath to defeat."
Executives at other Spanish-language channels don't believe advertisers will rush to Azteca's advertising options.
"It's a slippery slope," noted Tom McGarrity, co-president of Univision's network sales force. "There's some troubling issues to consider, such as giving up on everyone in a product category to get more revenue from one category player through deals like this."
Telemundo and Univision, along with other Latino channels, provide sponsorship options. But they're limited to specific-genre series or dayparts, or game or contest elements on programs like Univision's long-running Sabado Gigante
In fact, the studio audience joins host Don Francisco in singing sponsor jingles on Gigante.
Meanwhile, Azteca America CEO Luis Echarte said the channel was poised to expand its universe, suggesting that Comcast Cable and Time Warner Cable were ready to align with the network, following meetings last month. He said the Comcast deal would involve markets outside such key Latino population centers as New York, Los Angeles and Miami. The MSOs did not return calls by press time.
By year's end, Azteca — which Echarte said will increase its coverage of U.S. Latino culture, trends and issues — expects its Latino-household penetration to reach at least 83 percent.
Que new-media frontiero?
Though cable operators are pushing VOD, HDTV and, in a growing number of cases, DVRs through digital set-top boxes, executives with Spanish-language programmers played it close to the vest about their plans in these arenas.
In a post-upfront interview, TV Azteca president Ricardo Pliego said Azteca America is exploring VOD rollouts — perhaps as the sole means of distribution in some cable markets, but wouldn't give a date.
Fox Sports en Español also has placed VOD somewhere on its radar screen. Several proposals are being formulated for cable affiliates, according to Steinberg.
"The model will vary, depending on the needs of each affiliate," he said.
Said Univision's Rodriguez: "We're watching the PVR, VOD, ITV and all the other developments, but we have a lot of things to do and far to go with the medium we have now.
"With all the progress, we're still at the foundation stage of our industry. We have a lot more opportunity facing us to grow our business on the first and second floors. Then, there's 100 floors to go."