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S ‘ TV Takes Mainstream Approach to Hispanics

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When S ‘ TV debuts Feb. 25 in more than 18 million homes, it will be a milestone for a man who has established himself as a successful producer of shows such as Nickelodeon’s “The Brothers Garcia” while maintaining an activist bent.
Jeff Valdez, the founder and co-chairman of the English-language cable venture, is a brash and tenacious businessman whose higher education consisted of a single community college course on video production.
“Activist is a dirty word,” Mr. Valdez mused. “I’m an activist about wanting to portray Hispanics as human beings on television. It’s hard to get mad at me for that.”
His intentions may be tough to fault, but for a while they were easy to ignore. The creation of S ‘ TV has been a three-year struggle plagued by launch delays. Yet from the start, Mr. Valdez’s pitch has been simple: There are 35 million Hispanics in the United States. Nielsen research shows that 70 percent of them watch English-speaking television shows, yet there are no networks targeting English-speaking Hispanics. Plus, Hispanic culture is now as ubiquitous as Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias, so at least some non-Hispanic viewers are bound to watch the channel as well.
But try telling that to financiers.
“When was the last time you tried to launch an independent cable channel for an audience that doesn’t exist?” Mr. Valdez asked.
Like many of Mr. Valdez’s comments, his tone can best be described as “dry.” Obviously, he doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t exist, but that’s what certain financiers (whose identities he kept to himself) seemed to think.
“Originally, they said, `Show us proof of carriage,”’ he said. “So we got EchoStar. Then they said, `Show us you could get a cable operator.’ So we got Cox. Then they said, `Show us you can get one of the top two.’ We got Time Warner. Finally, we were like, `Guys, just show us the money.”’
With the backing of minority venture-capital firm Syndicated Communications, S ‘ TV is now set to launch. The slate will include repeats of the Dick Wolf drama “New York Undercover” and movies such as “The Milagro Beanfield War,” as well as originals including the Latino fashion program “Fly Paper: Style That Sticks” and a lifestyle-entertainment show called “Urban Latino.”
For Mr. Valdez, however, getting to this point was a long, hard road.
`Middle America Won’t Get It’
Raised in Pueblo, Colo., Mr. Valdez’s first showbiz experience was working as a stand-up comic. In the mid-1980s, he opened his own club in Colorado Springs, then videotaped comedians with the intention of selling their performances as a cable series. “At the time, all there was on cable was `Evening at the Improv,’ which was a bunch of comics talking about what it’s like to live in Los Angeles,” he said.
Mr. Valdez drove to Hollywood with his tapes of pre-fame talents such as Roseanne Barr and Sinbad. “They didn’t buy it,” he said.
Undeterred, Mr. Valdez returned to Hollywood in 1993, this time trying to get a sitcom. Once again, doors kept closing. “They said, `You talk about being Hispanic, people in Middle America won’t get it,”’ he recalled.
Mr. Valdez decided he needed an agent. So every day at lunch for three weeks, he sat outside an agency and asked departing agents whether they had lunch plans. If they were available, he would buy their meals and pitch himself. Eventually, he was signed.
Mr. Valdez formed a production company called S ‘ TV with his partner, venture capitalist Bruce Barshop, owner of the La Quinta hotel chain. They launched “The Latino Laugh Festival” on Showtime in 1996, then the award-winning series “The Brothers Garcia” on Nickelodeon in 1999. The shows laid the groundwork for Mr. Valdez’s most ambitious project yet-turning his production company into a network.
A Sense of Purpose
As he readies the S ‘ TV slate, Mr. Valdez’s experiences as a struggling actor have instilled a sense of purpose: rectifying the lack of diversity in Hollywood. “I always hear from networks, `We’re committed to diversity, we’re trying to be more diverse,”’ he said. “I always tell people they’re trying way too hard.”
Once again, this is said dryly, but he also means it-when networks try to create Hispanic characters, the result can be stereotypical. Mr. Valdez offers a solution.
“Just pick a script, pick a character and get a Hispanic actor,” he said. “Phoebe in `Friends’ could have been Hispanic. It’s that simple. And you wouldn’t even need to change her name because I guarantee you there are some Hispanic girls named Phoebe.”
When S ‘ TV debuts in a few months, cable subscribers will get a first look at Mr. Valdez’s egalitarian casting. His greatest hope is that the channel eventually will not be considered a Latino channel, but simply an entertainment channel. “Our audience wants to be considered normal,” he said.
For the time being, however, he’s business-savvy enough to pitch the channel in a way even MSOs will appreciate.
“When we talk to them, we’re calling it `J.Lo TV’-they get that,” he said … dryly.