PASADENA, CALIF. — As a network for the restless young set, Nickelodeon has no choice but to continually reinvent itself. This season, cultural diversity is front burner.
"About two years ago, when this agenda was set, we wanted to make sure that we were reflecting kids' lives," says Nickelodeon president Albie Hecht. "And we thought kids' lives were getting much more multicultural."
Mr. Hecht and his team took inventory of the channel's shows "and thought that we were doing a pretty good job reflecting images of blacks and whites and Asians, but we really felt we had underrepresented Latino kids."
The solution is a trio of new shows, the last of which, "Taina," rolls out this Sunday. The other two are "The Brothers Garcia" and "Dora the Explorer."
"We thought we'd reach out to the Latino community," he says, "and find people ... who have stories to tell."
The title character, Taina, is a 15-year-old singer-dancer who carries the double burdens of showbiz aspirations and a traditional Puerto Rican home life.
Creator and executive producer Maria Perez-Brown was born in Dorado, Puerto Rico, and understands the challenges of trying to navigate two different worlds. Her own mother was married by age 14 and was a single mother of four by age 20.
Ms. Perez-Brown graduated from Yale University and then New York University law school. After a stint as a tax attorney, she jumped full time into entertainment and started her own company, Dorado Entertainment. From there she launched the award-winning children's show, "Gullah Gullah Island."
Perez-Brown hopes to introduce a young audience to a Hispanic experience through "Taina" and is pleased to be part of Nickelodeon's outreach to a new world, but says this is yet another challenge.
"One of the disadvantages of never having had Latino shows like this is that the first one out of the box is going to have the burden of proving the Latinoism," she says. "What is Latino? Having three shows is going to show you three different points of view, three different approaches to what is Latino in the United States."
Billed as a 21st-century version of "Fame" (the 1980 film about the New York High School of the Performing Arts), "Taina" stars Christina Vidal, who says she "was born to play the role" of Taina as she moves through her life at the Manhattan School of the Arts. The show features a multigenerational cast.
"We've never had that on Nickelodeon," Nickelodeon boss Hecht says. "[With 'Taina'], we've been able to have a grandfather and a parent and a kid and an aunt all together at the table and talk about their experiences together."
Nickelodeon executives admit they had to have their eyes opened to the issue. Hecht says his epiphany occurred during a conversation with Hispanic writer Jeff Valdez ("Brothers Garcia"). "Jeff and I were talking one day ... and he said, 'I love your network,' " Hecht says, "but you know what? You don't have enough brown on your network."
Valdez himself says he had despaired of making the kind of progress Nickelodeon is now offering. "We were told by a network that they're not going to do a show with all Latino people on it...."
Once they began to see the light, the whole Nickelodeon team came on board.
"We are on a mission to have our air look exactly like kids' lives today," says Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's executive vice president and general manager.
"The world that they live in today is really rich with culture[s] and diversity, and we want to celebrate that on air."
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