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Latinos get leverage

Hispanic demo power hasn't translated on the screen

More than 50 years after Desi Arnaz came up with the recipe for the modern-day sitcom, Hispanics still aren’t dining regularly at the primetime table.

But a few have started showing up for dinner. Three laffers on the fall broadcast nets boast Latino leads — likely a record.

And with fresh demographic info coming out every day about the country’s fastest growing minority group, the webs are slowly extending the invitation.

Joining George Lopez’s self-titled ABC laffer this fall are two new entries on Fox: “Luis,” starring character actor Luis Guzman, and talkshow-within-a-sitcom entry “The Ortegas,” featuring Cheech Marin and newcomer Al Madrigal.

For a medium that has mostly ignored Hispanics, it’s a start. But even in 2003, thanks to the power of reruns, Arnaz is probably TV’s most recognized Latino star.

As one of the creators behind “I Love Lucy,” Arnaz and his team came up with the then-revolutionary idea of taping a comedy in front of a live studio audience, with three cameras to catch everything happening on stage.

That was unheard of in the age of New York-based live TV. But Arnaz and wife Lucille Ball wanted to stay in California and film their show — a move that helped make “I Love Lucy” the most popular comedy of all times.

Most sitcoms still operate on the same basic multicam model — yet Latino faces are just as rare in front of those cameras as they were in 1951, when Arnaz had to convince CBS execs that viewers would accept a Cuban leading man.

They did. And then … Latinos were pretty much segregated to Spanish-language TV. As a study released last week by UCLA reveals, Latinos are still grossly underrepresented in primetime.

According to the report, major and minor Hispanic characters took up just 3% of screen time on the broadcast webs in fall 2002.

That’s up slightly from 2% in 2001. But Latinos make up 13% of the country’s population.

Lopez admits that it’s lonely being one of the few Latino leads in prime — and that change won’t come overnight.

“That study could be released 10 years from now and still be the same,” he says. “We’re not going to open the floodgates. That’s not the way it is.”

Primetime’s small Latino boom began with “The George Lopez Show,” which enters its second full season (and third if you count the show’s four episodes in spring 2002) this fall. That already makes it TV’s most successful laffer ever with a predominantly Latino cast.

That’s right — even though “George Lopez” has produced just 28 episodes so far. But there isn’t exactly much competition for the title.

Last year’s “Welcome to Tucson” and “Kingpin” weren’t renewed. Comedians like Paul Rodriguez (“A.K.A. Pablo”), Jackie Guerra (“First Time Out”), Greg Giraldo (“Common Law”) and John Leguizamo (“House of Buggin'”) had a shot in primetime, but those shows disappeared within weeks.

Latinos have fared slightly better in drama and on cable.

Jimmy Smits led “NYPD Blue” for a number of years, Erik Estrada sped through “ChiPs” and Hector Elizondo has frequently shown up in a variety of hour-longs. Cable has launched shows with a predominantly Hispanic cast through the years such as “Resurrection Blvd.,” “The Brothers Garcia” and “Sanchez of Bel Air.”

Even PBS got into the act and saved “An American Family” when CBS cut the drama loose.

But besides “Lopez,” just two sitcoms with a Latino lead can claim hit status: The aforementioned “I Love Lucy,” and the mid-1970s Freddie Prinze starrer “Chico and the Man.”

Three hit comedies in 50 years — a pretty depressing batting average.

Some critics blame the nets, others point at advertisers and still more say Nielsen hasn’t done a good job accurately measuring English-lingo viewing by Latino auds.

Lopez doesn’t blame racism, he doesn’t point at prejudice or an organized effort to keep Latinos out of primetime. Quite simply, he says, people in Hollywood look out for themselves and their friends. And if they’re not Latino, and none of their friends is Latino, then Latinos won’t get many jobs.

“It’s an exclusive club,” he says. “Directors and writers and producers rehire each other when a show fails. And the majority of them are Anglo. To get in and be of color takes a long time.”

Net execs are understandably weary at pointing out these steps, since it reminds critics that they haven’t given groups like Hispanics much of a voice in the past –and they still have a long way to go.

“Is it long overdue? For an industry, probably, yes,” says Fox’s Mitzi Wilson, who heads the net’s diversity initiatives. “For us, it’s whether we can identify material that feels specific to Fox and would appeal to adults 18-34.”

Latinos have now surpassed African-Americans as the nation’s largest minority group — and that fact has become almost too embarrassing to ignore. As a new generation of bilingual Latinos come of age, the webs have started waking up to their buying power.

“The color of Hollywood is green, and when brown can start making you some green, then brown becomes important,” Lopez says.

“George Lopez” exec producer Bruce Helford said he and his staff have made sure the show spoke to a universal audience, much as “The Cosby Show” was seen as a breakthrough for its depiction of a loving African-American family.

“The first thing George said was, we’re not going to make a big deal of it,” Helford says of the show’s Latino cast. “This is a show about an American family.”

But Helford also knows the success or failure of “Lopez” will determine whether the nets will take more shots with Latino talent.

“We approached the show with some sense that this is bigger than us, and worked our ass off,” Helford said. “If we failed, we would have been the people that kept everyone else from jumping in the water.”

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