Hispanic shows making prime-time progress

Nov 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

George Lopez says he isn’t asking for “Brown Hollywood.” All he wants is for programmers to stop slapping an accent on their Hispanic characters or putting a Pekingese dog under their arms.
Mr. Lopez is the star and creator of ABC’s prime-time sitcom “George Lopez,” which with The WB’s “Greetings From Tucson,” is proof that a Hispanic show can draw a broad audience in prime time. While the presence of these shows in prime time is progress, it’s not time for the broadcast networks to pat themselves on their backs, he said.
“Progress would be putting a Latina on `Friends,’ putting a person of color on any show largely with white actors,” Mr. Lopez said. “Progress is putting a Cuban in the lead on `CSI: Miami.’ The biggest indictment in Hollywood is that `Friends’ takes place in New York and there is no Latino, African American or person of color. That might have worked when Babe Ruth was hitting 60 homes runs a year, but that’s not New York now.”
But it is the reality of Hollywood now, and despite small signs of progress, the television landscape is just beginning to catch up to demographics that reflect the transformation that’s occurring in the country as the Hispanic population, now at 41 million, continues to boom.
The move to incorporate Hispanic characters into shows has been slow but is now changing, said Bruce Helford, executive producer of “George Lopez.” In the pilot breakdown for the upcoming season, there are four or five shows with Latino main characters, he said. Such advancement has taken time because of a widespread industry fear that a Hispanic show wouldn’t have broad enough appeal. The positive reception for “George Lopez,” however, has proved that Hispanic-based shows can draw ethnic and non-ethnic audiences, Mr. Helford said. “The size and success of `George Lopez’ will help a lot,” he said.
Such success can also draw more Latinos into the business. The Hispanic talent pool is not that deep, Mr. Helford said. He even auditioned actors from Mexico City for his show. Traditionally, Hispanics have primarily been hired to play the gangster, sexy woman or maid, he said. He predicts at least three new shows will air next year with Latino leads or a primarily Latino cast.
The WB wasn’t specifically looking for a Latino show when it picked up Peter Murietta’s “Greetings From Tucson.” In fact, Mr. Murietta had not even intended to pitch the show-he was simply sharing anecdotes about his family during a general meeting when the network decided it wanted to buy his story.
“When Peter told us his story, it was the right time for us,” said Tracey Pakosta, co-senior VP of comedy development with The WB. “The openness to explore different cultures is happening, and we are excited and will continue to explore.” The show works because it is a smart, funny family show with a distinctive point of view, she said.
Cable success
While Showtime demonstrated during the three-year run of the recently canceled “Resurrection Boulevard” that a Hispanic show can draw an audience on cable, The WB and ABC programs illustrate a much broader appeal, said Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
“Now, we’re not talking about a small audience of 2 million, but 13 million to 14 million,” he said. “As under-represented as we are, it’s improving. It’s incremental. You have to consider where you were. We are getting something finally.”
A Hispanic show has been a missed opportunity until now, said Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment Television. “What’s great about it is George Lopez tells real, relatable stories through the prism of his life,” Mr. Braun said. “His voice comes from his Latino background, but [the stories] are completely relatable to everybody else.”
Developing such a show is an area ABC has sought to mine for the past few years, but special talents and voices are hard to find. ABC hopes to expand the talent pool with its writer and director programs and acting workshops, Mr. Braun said.
The current successes and the doors they may open for future are juxtaposed against setbacks on other networks. NBC’s “Good Morning, Miami” and CBS’s “CSI: Miami” have been criticized for having only one Hispanic character each.
“Good Morning, Miami,” is not, however, set in the streets of Miami but rather in a TV station that just happens to be in a largely Latino city, said Marc Hirschfeld, executive VP, casting, with NBC Entertainment. The one Latino character-a ditsy morning show anchor played by Tessie Santiago-is being written off the show. However, Mr. Hirschfeld said her character will be replaced with another Latino character. In addition, the network expects to bring in more Latinos as guests and will likely add another Hispanic character to the cast shortly. “We totally understand there should be a Latin presence in the show. It’s our intention to have one, and we will explore opportunities to do that,” he said.
Fostering new talent
The network also completed casting a half-hour pilot called “The Ortegas” with an all-Latino cast. In addition, NBC’s planned midseason replacement show “Kingpin” is an hour-long drama centered on a family of Mexican drug dealers. “We have a ways to go, but we are proud of the progress we have made,” Mr. Hirschfeld said.
NBC aims to foster new talent by hosting open-mic nights in Los Angeles for ethnic stand-up comics and by producing showcases for actors of color.
While prime time has been slow to integrate Hispanics, daytime TV has proved that doing so is a recipe for success. The financial model for daytime programming and soaps is less risky to try new things, said Brian Frons, president of ABC Daytime. NBC’s “Santa Barbara” set the precedent in 1984 when it cast A Martinez as leading man Cruz Castillo in the soap opera.
“I think Latino is hot right now in feature film, music and television,” Mr. Frons said. “One would have to be incredibly dense to miss magazine covers, record sales, just the composition of your neighborhood to not realize the Hispanic population is a huge presence here.”