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Two-Tongue TV Shows Target Hispanic Audience

On Stage 4 of the KTLA lot in Los Angeles, actress Mara Conchita Alonso is taping a new daily talk- variety show, "Al da con Mara Conchita." While a new talk show in L.A. is about as newsworthy as a sunny day, this one is part of a new trend of Spanish, bilingual, and Hispanic-themed programming with an accent of Spanglish (a hybrid of English and Spanish), aimed at a potentially huge new audience just outside the industry's door.

"[It's] a whole generation of second- and third-generation Hispanics who don't see themselves anywhere on television," muses Dan Guerrero, vice president of Seorita Anita, the production company responsible for Ms. Alonso's new show.

This program is just one of the many Spanglish-tinged television shows springing up across the United States. Their target: an audience of some 29 million Hispanics that also happens to be the fastest-growing minority group in the country.

"We believe strongly that Latino-themed programming is coming into the forefront now," notes Richard Melcombe, president of Seorita Anita Prods., "and we're committed to being the leader in that new programming." Mr. Melcombe's vision includes hour-long dramas, games shows, and comedies, all with Hispanic themes.

Recent moves by industry heavyweights have underlined the heightened Hollywood interest in Hispanic advertising dollars. In November, Sony Corp. and the cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. bought stakes in Telemundo, the nation's second-ranked Spanish-language television network (and the new home of Alonso's talk show, as of May 4).

"We want to appeal to that Hispanic audience that's left traditional Spanish TV [produced in Latin America] because it doesn't speak to the American experience," observes Andy Kaplan, executive vice president of Columbia TriStar TV Group (a Sony division).

Barry Diller's Home Shopping Network is launching a Spanish-language twin, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch revealed his interest by bidding in the Telemundo sale.

In radio and print, where the trend has been building for years, Heftel Broadcasting, the largest Spanish-language radio net-work, has seen its stock take off. And in January, Radio Unica, another Spanish network, joined the two-year-old network Cadena Caracol.

More recently in print, publications such as a glossy Spanish version of People magazine and the new Generation are but two among a flood of recent offerings.

Money is the key to the new level of interest. According to the magazine Hispanic Business, spending by such mainstream advertisers as Procter & Gamble and AT&T to reach the burgeoning Hispanic market rose 17 percent last year to $1.4 billion.

Spanish-language programming has been criticized for its low-production values, but this new level of commitment is expected to raise production and quality of content.

This is what it will take to reach this sophisticated, largely urban market that is accustomed to tony production values, says Augusto Failde, president of the New York-based consulting firm Tropix Media.

"This is a generation that has grown up with 'Seinfeld' and 'Friends,' " Mr. Failde explains. "But nothing has shown them about their own lives in America," he adds, emphasizing that the youth market may hold the most potential.

Failde is quick to point out that while moves are afoot, there is still a long way to go. Right now, there are no Hispanic-themed shows on network television. Most of what's happening is strictly on the independent, local-station level. "When we start to see Hispanic executives in high positions," says Failde, "that's when we'll see real change in the mainstream."

Jim Chancey, KGBT news director in Harlingen, Texas, begs to differ. "I'm not Hispanic," says the newsman whose audience is nearly 90 percent Hispanic. "But I am sensitive to what's going on out there. That's all it takes, no matter what level you're at."

His station, a CBS network affiliate, now airs Venezuelan telenovelas in the afternoons, but its most popular show by far, a Spanglish variety show, occupies the Sunday morning block from 5 a.m. to noon.

"We're seeing indicators in the border towns of what's going to happen all over the US soon," he predicts.

For instance, "Despierta Amrica," the early-morning show on KMEX, the Los Angeles flagship affiliate of Univision (the nation's premire Spanish-language network), is the third most-watched show in town, just points behind ABC's "Good Morning America." Miami's WHYS, revamping under Barry Diller's USA Broadcasting and set to launch in June, is doing a full-court press into a broad Spanglish format.

"The issue with our audience is not, will they cross over into the mainstream with their rich cultural background," explains Matti Leshem, editor in chief at WHYS. "They have crossed over, and now they're waiting for mainstream media to catch up."

Mr. Leshem says these broad Hispanic influences, ranging from the Puerto Rican presence in New York to the Cuban culture in Miami and the Mexican mix in Los Angeles, are the next wave in popular culture.

Teenager Amber Duke, a self-professed "total Anglo" in Downey, Calif., says she's looking forward to Alonso's new show, even though it will be primarily in Spanish to start. (Alonso says confidently, "It won't matter if my audience speaks Spanish or not. They'll watch for the look, the style, the energy.")

Veteran Latina actress Julie Carmen says the new possibilities in Latin-themed programming can't come too soon. She points out that over the years, she's seen scripts in development - especially those with "touchy topics" like gangs - replace Hispanic identities with less specific ones, "to make them play more to the mainstream."

Ms. Carmen believes that approach is wrongheaded. "It's the specificity that makes them universal, whatever that happens to be."

Teenager Audrey Aguillar, who was at a taping of Alonso's talk show, says it's about time Hispanic-themed shows got hipper, more American in their orientation. Being a third-generation Mexican-American, she has a frame of reference that is here and now. "Not the old country," she laughs. "It's about time we can see [life here] on television."

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