Cultura y Artes

America´s Hispanics – Media: Hearts and minds

20150314_SRP013_0“Mi Corazón es Tuyo”, stripped of the nun

TO ANYONE OVER 40, there is something naggingly familiar about the premise of “Mi Corazón es Tuyo” (“My Heart is Yours”), a torrid weeknight drama series on Univision, America’s largest Hispanic television network. On some nights it beats the English-language networks, a boss at the network explained recently, proudly citing its 2m viewers in the 18-49 age group popular with advertisers. The Mexican telenovela follows a nanny hired by a stern widower to care for his seven children. Hang on, she was asked, that’s “The Sound of Music”, isn’t it? You know that and I know that, the executive conceded, but to its fans it is “Mi Corazón es Tuyo”. And in this version, she added, the nanny isn’t a nun, she’s a stripper.

The tweak in the plot is fitting. Spanish-language TV networks occupy an odd place in Hispanic-American life. They offer viewers a bright-hued, big-haired diet of beauty pageants, celebrity gossip and 120-episode sagas of heartbreak and passion. At the same time their news coverage is often weighty enough to put English-language networks to shame. The public-service arms of Univision and its smaller rival, Telemundo, stage healthy-living campaigns, nudge Latino children to study science and host meetings in migrant communities to explain health insurance or voter registration. All in all, half-nanny, half-stripper is a fair metaphor for the part they play.

“Our role is not only to inform but to guide socially,” says Jorge Ramos, a long-time news anchor on Univision. “Nobody can make it to the White House without Hispanic votes.” But Latinos remain underrepresented in Congress and the corridors of power, so Univision “ends up as a counsellor, an advocate”.

There is an oddly wholesome quality to “Sábado Gigante” (“Giant Saturday”), a three-hour weekly variety show hosted by an indefatigable Chilean, Mario Kreutzberger, under the stage name Don Francisco. He launched a Chilean version more than 50 years ago and a parallel American edition in 1986, promoting the idea of a single community united by Spanish and by the hardships suffered by migrants.

The show draws millions of viewers each Saturday, including lots of families watching together. It defies easy description. At one moment Don Francisco might lead the studio audience in singing a detergent jingle before introducing a mariachi band or a slapstick comedy. In a recent episode a grim-faced Latina watched her husband being strapped to a lie detector and questioned about his suspected infidelity by the show’s regular poligrafista, a retired white detective with terrible Spanish (watching a gringo cop struggle with the language reliably prompts audience laughter). Fortunately the husband passed the test.

Media folk wonder whether the children and grandchildren of immigrants now driving Latino population growth will assimilate to the point where they outgrow such specialist networks. Italian- and Greek-Americans have become integrated in that way, with some different holiday traditions and social clubs but no special TV networks or national media. Black Americans, by contrast, have remained a community with sufficiently different values and tastes to warrant separate TV channels, radio stations, recording artists and magazines. In a break from taping his variety show, Don Francisco points to geography as a reason why Hispanics will hold on to their culture when earlier migrants did not. Italians are an ocean from their country of origin, he notes. Migrants from Latin America need only “cross a river” to maintain home ties.

Univision’s CEO, Randy Falco, insists that his network is not trying to corral its viewers in a separate barrio. “I’m a die-hard Republican,” he says. “There is no conspiracy of Univision sitting around trying to make sure viewers are dependent on us.”

A bit of everything

Despite Univision’s successes, between 2013 and early 2015 its audience aged 18 to 49 fell by 26%, according to Nielsen, a research firm. Such numbers have prompted changes as Hispanic media bosses try to reassemble a fragmenting audience. Univision has launched new channels and English-language services, including Fusion, a cable news channel aimed at young viewers produced jointly with ABC News. The network is also investing in an array of digital products aimed at young Hispanics, who like to access content on their smartphones.

Other media businesses explicitly target “acculturated” Hispanics, who jump easily between Latino family life and all-American workplaces. A successful example is Latina magazine, an English-language, New York-based women’s monthly. “They want the fine things that previous immigrant generations came here for. They want those things for themselves, and they want them for their children,” says the magazine’s president, Lauren Michaels. “They are reminiscent of baby-boomers of the past.”

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