Speaking Young Latinos' Language

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Maria Perez-Brown knows a thing or two about TV
programming targeting Latinos. Before joining Si­ TV two and a half years ago as
senior vice president of programming, the Puerto Rico native had developed
several drama and sitcom scripts for Touchstone Television and Nickelodeon,
including award-winning Taina, a
live-action comedy series about a 15-year-old Latina caught in between two
cultures. As Si­ TV this month premiered Latino
101
, an original series profiling Latino life in America with an irreverent
twist, Hispanic TV Update spoke with
Perez-Brown, who reflected about Latino stereotypes, Don Francisco and the humor gap that exists between Spanish- and
English-dominant Latinos. An edited excerpt follows:

MCN: How did the idea of Latino 101 come about?

Maria Perez-Brown

MPB: The show
was actually brought to us by a couple of writers, Jason Nieves and Keu Reyes,
who came to us to pitch a bunch of ideas and the one that resonated with us was
Latino 101. It is a comedy show
featuring commentary by Latino comedians about Latino topics. The whole show is
modeled like a classroom: It's sort of like going to college to learn
everything about Latino culture. So you'll learn a lot about Latinos' take on history,
politics, art or popular culture -- with a humorous twist.

The show is not hosted: a
narrator introduces the subject matter, welcomes you to "the class" and then
you see a bunch of comics making their commentary about one particular subject.
All of this happens while in the background you get a lot of graphics, and
pictures.

MCN: You have described this show as an
"outrageously funny experiment in programming." Why?

MPB: [Laughs]
Well, I guess that is really what it is. I mean, it is really a departure from
what we do. Most of our shows are scripted, but Latino 101 is a mix of both scripted and unscripted material. We
have a script that the comedians follow, but then we allow them to go back to
the set, without the script, and improvise. I can tell you that half the time
the non-scripted stuff was hilarious.

MCN: You have only aired two episodes so
far ... but can you give us an idea as to what kind of feedback you've received
so far?

MPB: We do our
own internal, not-very-scientific focus groups, because a lot of people that
work on our network are actually the same people who watch our network: They
are very young; they are our own demographic. So basically, we test our own
people and we've found out the sensibility is right, the jokes are playing,
everybody's laughing and they enjoy the work that has been done. Especially
when they are sort of edgy or unapologetic or may be a commentary on what could
be a stereotype about Latinos, we want these comedians to be able to hit it
head-on and to address it.

MCN: How do you go about dealing with
stereotypes?

MPB: You can
make a statement about what Latinos wear: for example, that Latinos in the Bronx wear stretch pants. I would tell you, 'cause I ride the train, that it's
true! Of course you don't want to make that the rule about all Latinos in the
world, but if you have a comedian who can talk from his or her own experience
and say: "My sister is 300 pounds and wears stretch pants," that is a very
different joke because it's telling this from his experience. I'm very careful
about those sort of things. As a network you have the responsibility as what
you're putting on the air. But at the same time you want to give your writers
creative freedom.

MCN: Would you say the humor -- and jokes --
targeting Latinos in English-language TV are different from what you see on
Spanish-language TV?

MPB: I am very
well aware of programming for Spanish-language TV, but what we do here targets
a younger generation; we are more 'Americanized' Latino programming. When I
look at comedy in, say, Univision or Telemundo, it's comedy that -- to me -- it's
like it's 1950s all over again. I watch my mother watching [Univision's] Don Francisco and I cringe! I can't
believe you sit here for these many hours to watch this. Then she'd go: "¡Mira,
mira! Someone falls down!" I mean, someone comes out, gets hit with a chicken
on the head and falls down, and then everybody cracks up in my house, and I
wonder: what is going on here?

But it is when I see my mom
enjoying that type of comedy that I realize how interesting this
multigenerational difference is in comedy. Our young comedians, for instance,
can talk about their parents watching Don
Francisco
and how he has [in his shows] all these half naked running
around. We can make fun of ourselves and we can make commentary on Spanish-language
television.

MCN: What's the Latino 101 take on
Spanish-language television?

MPB: One of
our comedians, Judy Reyes, makes this hilarious take about Spanish-language
newscasters. She talks about how dramatic everything is, even the news. At one
point, she says: "First of all, your boobs have to be very big," and then she
grabs her boobs and talks about some tragedy out there, showing lots of dead
bodies. Again: the news sensibility is very different in American television.
If you are a Latino growing up in America, watching NBC news, chances are you have not been
exposed to that kind of television.

MCN: I see networks like yours that
continue to push the envelope to produce nontraditional programming for
Latinos. Yet, most of the advertising dollars still go to telenovelas and
Spanish-only TV. How would you change this?

MPB: Well,
that's a daily struggle for us. We want our advertising dollars to increase, to
prove that our audience is extremely lucrative, that they have high household
incomes. But whenever we confront advertisers, we give them our data, they say:
"OK, but we're going to make our buy with Spanish-language TV because it
delivers better value, etc."

The problem is: We are caught
between the advertising world in the traditional sense, where they say, "Well,
if you Latinos speak English, then you're going to be watching ABC anyway so I
reach you through those networks. And if you speak Spanish then we'll spend our
money over at Univision or Telemundo."

MCN: Do you think or hope the 2010 Census
will change this?

MPB: I am
hoping the Census is going to prove that the largest and the fastest-growing
number of Latinos in this country speak English and want to consume their media
in English. That's a very subtle point but I want to make it. And I speak
Spanish, but I watch ABC, NBC, Si­ TV, anything that has me reflected in it. It
has nothing to do with language but preference in how you consume your media.

MCN: What would you say is this year's No. 1
challenge for Si­ TV?

MPB:The biggest
challenge is really advertisers' understanding that we are a very lucrative and
viable market for them and spending more ad dollars on us. Because the more ad
dollars we get, the more programming we can produce. When you are a small
network, you need to make choices regarding how you allocate your budget.

MCN: As a Puerto Rico native in her early
40s, who consumes media in English and Spanish, what's your favorite TV show?

MPB: No one
had ever asked me that before. But I would have to say I really, really like Ugly Betty, because it's a light comedy,
but it is also smart. Of course I also like Desperate
Housewives
and one of my favorite guilty pleasures is to watch anything on
HBO and Showtime. I like what these networks do with their programming; they
have a way of carving universes in ways we've never seen before.

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