Latin webs target young, fast-growing auds

The new cable drama “RPM Miami” is a high-octane sudser — think “Fast and the Furious” meets “Desperate Housewives.”

In the show’s first few episodes, Iraq war veteran Alejandro becomes enmeshed in Miami’s underground street racing culture and falls for the sweet but rebellious Luisa — until the return of Mike, the husband she thought was dead. The conniving Gina cajoles Ramon to help her exact revenge on a rival. The voracious Ana looks to seduce another female conquest. And the long-suffering Jonas surprises everyone by waking up from a coma.

“RPM Miami,” which airs on the NBCUniversal-owned cabler Mun2, is a primetime ensembler in the classic potboiler tradition. Except that the characters converse in two languages, Spanish and English, throughout each episode. In many scenes, characters switch languages mid-sentence.

“RPM Miami” is emblematic of a wave of programming hitting U.S. Spanish-language broadcast and cable outlets that is aimed squarely at the fastest-growing demographic in TV: U.S.-born, bilingual Hispanics.

More and more programs on Spanish-language TV are employing a blend of Spanish and English as programmers in the sector adjust from a tight focus on first-generation, Spanish dominant immigrants to second- and third-generation Latinos who watch plenty of English-lingo fare but are still hungry for programs that speak to their specific multicultural mindset. And major media congloms like NBCU, News Corp. and Viacom are paying close attention.

NBCU’s new CEO, Steve Burke, has made it clear that the company sees its Spanish-language media assets — broadcaster Telemundo and cable sibling Mun2 — as major growth opportunities. Burke backed that up by giving oversight of those nets to Lauren Zalaznick, the cable programming maven who turned Bravo into a powerhouse for NBCU.

Telemundo and Mun2 represent “an immense opportunity for NBCU to be on the leading edge of growth with an audience segment that is on the rise in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of cultural influence,” says Zalaznick, chairman of NBCUniversal Entertainment, Digital Networks and Integrated Media. She also oversees the newly created Hispanics@NBCU initiative to capture more advertising dollars aimed at Latinos.

The push for a wider variety of programming on Spanish-lingo TV in the U.S. also reflects the long-standing frustration by Hispanics that they remain sparsely represented in mainstream primetime shows, despite their ever-growing numbers, as documented in the 2010 Census. A study commissioned by MTV’s bilingual offshoot Tr3s (or “Tres”) found in a survey of Latinos in the 14-34 age range that nearly half are seeking more “bilingual/bicultural programming.”

To programmers focused on next-gen bilinguals, the confluence of trends amounts to a mandate to develop more innovative — and hopefully profitable — programming. These are not your abuela’s telenovelas.

SiTV, the pioneering English-language Latino network founded in 2004, changed its name to NuvoTV on July 4 as part of a rebranding and programming overhaul. The move is in response to overwhelming evidence that bicultural Latinos have gone from niche to mainstream. “Biculturals represent 80% of the overall growth of the U.S. Hispanic market,” says NuvoTV CEO Michael Schwimmer. To complement its signature original programs “Model Latina” and “Latino 101,” its new shows include fitness training skein “Operation: Osmin,” cooking show “Mission Menu” and “PastPort,” which tracks Latino celebs returning to their families’ homelands.

Mun2 is looking to leverage all the assets of NBC­Universal to fire up its original programming expansion plans.

“‘RPM Miami’ is such a unique production that it warranted a genre of its own. We coined it a ‘dramela,’ targeting GenYLAs (young Latino Americans) who see themselves as uniquely American,” said Telemundo chief operating officer Jacqueline Hernandez when the show bowed in May. To maximize the sudser’s appeal to viewers who may not be thoroughly conversant in Spanish, “RPM” runs with English subtitles. The show has already been picked up for a second season.

It’s clear that Spanish-lingo cablers are embracing the weekly drama series as an organic addition to the traditional strip format of the telenovela. And they are reaching beyond their walls to outside producers, in some cases those who are more accustomed to working in English but are eager to break into a fast-growing market.

“There are a lot of Hispanic viewers who don’t necessarily watch telenovelas. We have to work harder to get them,” Zalaznick says.

Tr3s is readying a new drama series for the fall, “Popland,” which traces a young woman’s journey from a small town to the high life in the big city. It’ll air primarily in Spanish with English subtitles. It follows on the heels of the cabler’s first scripted series, “Ninas mal” (Charm School), a racy teen soap that aired earlier this year and was a spinoff of the hit Mexican pic of the same name.

Among the most popular series on Tr3s is the unscripted “Quiero Mi Boda,” which takes biculturalism head-on as it examines the ups and downs of Latinos marrying outside their culture.

Like Tr3s, Mun2 is aggressively courting a younger aud with a host of reality shows that freely mix Spanish and English. “I Love Jenni” has a “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” feel as it follows regional Mexican music star Jenni Rivera and her entourage.

“Beauties and the Boss,” which bowed last month, revolves around Monica Weitzel, the Latina owner of the L.A.-based modeling agency, Associated Flavors Agency.

“Beauties” comes from 8th Wonder Entertainment, and marks the shingle’s first production for Mun2.

“We’ve been wanting to get into the Latino market for the past three years,” says 8th Wonder topper Michael McQuarn, who has other Latino-themed programs in the works.

“I Love Jenni” also marks the first Latino-themed show for its production company, Blank Paige Prods., which has hired a bilingual staff, according to topper Edward Paige. He admits to some frustration in dealing with the general market in getting press and advertising coin for “Jenni.”

“The mainstream media outlets and advertisers tend to bypass us, not realizing that ‘Jenni’ is (similar to) the ‘Kardashians,’ ” Paige says.

Although Latino webs are reaching out to more indie producers, competition comes from the networks themselves, not other indies, says Roger Huguet, prexy and chief operating officer of Imagina U.S., the U.S. arm of Spain’s Imagina Holding, which has been producing TV content for Telemundo, Univision, Televisa, Colombia’s RCN and other Latino webs, all production powerhouses themselves. Imagina U.S. is producing dating show “12 Corazones” and telenovelas “Amor de Nuevo” and “Amor de Peliculas” for Telemundo and reality show “Protagonistas” for Univision.

All the activity in the Spanish-lingo sector has been galvanized by the latest U.S. Census Bureau findings that documented the growth of the Hispanic population during the past decade and the projected future growth of the U.S.-born subset.

The Hispanic population now tops 50 million and is growing, by some estimates, eight times faster than other segments of the U.S. population. Moreover, the U.S. Hispanic median age is 25 compared with 36 for the general population.

While mainstream broadcasters have seen their auds erode, both Univision and Telemundo and even smaller Spanish-lanuage nets have seen an uptick in viewership. Market leader Univision sometimes bests the ratings of its mainstream counterparts.

Even before the Comcast takeover of NBCU, Telemundo and Mun2 had been pushed by chief operating officer Hernandez to maximize the synergy between the two offshoots, to make them a tighter unit, says Flavio Morales, Mun2′s senior VP of programming and production.

With the new focus on growth, both Telemundo and mun2 are expecting an increase in their production expenditures, though for now, budgets remain lean.

“If I had staged a car crash or race in every episode of ‘RPM Miami,’ we would have blown through the entire budget very quickly,” says Alonso Galvez, production veep for Mun2.

A little money does go a long way, as Telemundo discovered when its most expensive original production, telenovela “La Reina del Sur” (Queen of the South), made for about $10 million, became its biggest hit. Its success has spurred Telemundo to launch its first-ever Primetime Emmy campaign for the show (pitching it as a contender for best drama series) and star Kate del Castillo.

Some veterans of the Hispanic media scene are a little skeptical, but still hopeful, that the boom in the programming marketplace will be sustained this time around, having seen a flurry of activity come and go a decade ago.

“After the last census in 2000, the U.S. Hispanic market got all this hype and attention, then people forgot,” says Luis Balaguer, CEO of Hispanic talent management agency/production company Latin World. The shingle supplies talent for Univision shows, and is developing a sitcom for ABC, “I Hate This Place,” with Latin World partner Sofia Vergara and Electus’ Ben Silverman.

“It’s a shame, as they now represent more than a trillion dollars in purchasing power,” Balaguer adds.

RELATED LINK:
Ad spending rising to meet Spanish giant

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more