Fusion Pair Kooky Creatures With Veteran

Cabler backed by Univison and ABC News charts non-traditional course to woo desirable demo

If four creatures created by the legendary Jim Henson Company are holding forth on the TV screen, interviewing guests and chatting about interesting stories and gossip, then you must be watching – a cable-news network?

While it’s difficult to imagine a similar scene playing itself out on Fox News Channel or CNN, it will air on Fusion, a new cabler hoping to catch the interest of a nation of millenials – many with a Hispanic background – interested in a point of view different from those currently available. The new network launches in about 20 million homes Monday, with the aforementioned critters holding forth at 9:30 p.m. weeknights.

“This is a different type of network than what people are expecting,” said Issac Lee, the Univision News veteran who is chief executive of Fusion. Conceived as a means of reaching a U.S. demographic expected to swell in coming years – Hispanic consumers who watch English-language television – Fusion in some ways offers fission, or a splitting of subjects. At 8 p.m., for example, the network will air a one-hour show featuring Univision veteran Jorge Ramos along with what is billed as “sharp, fair and unbiased discussion” about the issues of the day. But at 9 p.m, Fusion will offer an hour of news-based satire and comedy. Its head of programming, Billy Kimball, helped launch “The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn” on CBS and has written eight episodes of “The Simpsons.”

The network has been touted as a media outlet that will court young Hispanics. But Lee noted that “we are going to be a success with millenials regardless if they are Hispanic or not.”

Fusion’s fate could be a critical new step for its backers, Univision and Disney’s ABC News. Its primary audience is expected to see income and presence grow in the years to come. An analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census by Hispanic advocacy organization National Council of La Raza noted that Latinos make up 16% of the total U.S. population, and 23% of the population under age 18. A report released recently by Pew Hispanic Center determined 82% of Hispanic adults in 2012 got at least some of their news in English, up from 78% in 2006. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic adults who get at least some of their news in Spanish has declined, to 68% in 2012 from 78% in 2006. According to the Pew study, a record 31 million Hispanics aged 5 and older are proficient in English, up from 19 million in 2000 and 8 million in 1980.

Executives at Fusion have pitched ad agencies with a plan that asks them to come along for the ride, said Caleb Windover, senior veep and managing director at MV42, a multicultural media buying agency that is part of Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest. “Jorge Ramos brings instant credibility to the network, but I think it stands to reason over the longer term, the focus isn’t going to be just on news,” he said.

Fusion launches at a time of great activity in youth-oriented televisin as well as the TV-news sphere. Participant Media’s new calber, Pivot, aims for a similar age group as Fusion. And Al Jazeera America launched two months ago with the promise of offering harder news and less fluff than the current set of cable outlets. Lee thinks he can use growing interest in Hispanic culture – during an interview, he cited everything from Cuban-American rapper Pitbull to “Modern Family” actress Sofia Vergara – to draw a broader crowd than observers may initially suspect.

And people anticipating news anchors reading briefs on a standard set are likely to be disappointed. “You learn breaking news on your Twitter handle and you see the picture on Instagram and then you get the link from YouTube,”said Lee. By the time younger viewers get to the TV, he said, they crave context and analysis. “If you aren’t going to give them something else, why watch?”

To that end, Fusion’s schedule will be filled with a large number of hours devoted to documentaries and talk programs.

The weekday schedule is completed at 10 p.m., when Mexican-born journalist Leon Krauze hosts “Open Source with Leon Krauze,” a live hour-long show where topics can veer from politics to comic books. Documentaries, original series and specials fill the air Saturday and Sunday nights. One is “Strange Medicine,” a half-hour 12-part quest to find the strangest cures and most exotic medicines from around the world. Another is “Back Home,” which follows a different celebrity guest each week on an emotional voyage to their family’s country of origin.

One of the network’s selling points will be humor. Indeed, one of Fusion’s more notable hires is that of David Javerbaum, the former exec producer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” who has been hired not only to supervise that quirky 9:30 p.m. program featuring the Henson creatures, but also to develop more comedy at the network. “It’s a new show,” he said of his new parody program. “It is being broadcast from a different universe – literally.” Before that program comes on the air, a show following Ramos at 9 p.m. will feature an improv comedy group will take on sports news in satiricial fashion.

As part of the proceedings, four Henson creatures will lead a familiar talk-show format, but many elements of it might seem off-kilter. “The news is different and the culture is different and the gossip is different,but it’s in the format of a moringh show. The format is very famiar.” Javerbaum and Henson are working on another program for Fusion, with details likely to be disclosed in the days ahead.

Javerbaum expects the program to draw viewers well beyond Fusion’s immediate target. Fusion executive realized as plans developed that they had ‘a broad youth market in general to be tapped into,” he said. “I certainly hope this show does very well with all demographics.”

For the immediate future, said Lee, Fusion will be a work in progress. “This is a permanent lab for us,” he said. “We don’t pretend to be getting it right on day one, but we do know that we are going to be taking risks and doing things that have never been done before.”

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