By Natalie Finn
Special to TelevisionWeek
At one point during filming, chief photographer Arturo Quezada was so entranced by what the man being interviewed had to say, he almost forgot to change the camera angle when the time came.
“When you’re doing a story, you focus on your audio, on your lighting, on your composition,” said Mr. Quezada, an Emmy-winning videographer. “You don’t normally get that involved in what the subject is telling you. But the information was so captivating and interesting, you can’t help but get wrapped up and excited about what you’re hearing.”
What Mr. Quezada was referring to was a KMEX-TV interview with Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, whose book “La Nueva California: Latinos in the Golden State” laid the foundation for the station’s 19-part public service series “El 15% de los Estados Unidos” (“15 Percent of the United States”). The report, which aired on consecutive weekdays during KMEX’s 6 p.m. newscast, has been honored with a 2005 Peabody Award.
KMEX is the flagship station of the Los Angeles-based Univision Television Group. It is the largest Spanish-language television station in the United States and in 2002 televised more lengthy news stories than any other local news station-both English- and Spanish-language-in the Los Angeles market. According to the Nielsen Station Index, KMEX is the highest-rated station in Los Angeles, regardless of language, in the 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 demographics during the daytime, early fringe and prime-time programming blocks. The station’s average prime-time rating is 4.4 among adults 18 to 34. Fox affiliate KTTV is second in the market with a 3.3.
“Because we do it in Spanish doesn’t mean that it has to be less quality,” said KMEX news anchor Rolando Nichols. “That has always been my bible-just because we do it in Spanish doesn’t mean we have less resources or less access to certain individuals. The proof is right there in this wonderful award that we’re getting.”
“El 15% de los Estados Unidos” was produced in both Spanish and English. Sources at KMEX said PBS has shown interest in airing the complete series, and negotiations are in the works to make that happen.
The intention behind “15%” was to depict the past, present and future of the country’s growing Latino population in a way not normally seen on mainstream television. Exploring both positives and negatives, the series focuses on issues ranging from the high percentage of Latino inmates in U.S. prisons to the contributions of Latino doctors, businessmen and politicians.
“Responses that I have heard [from viewers] is that they feel very proud,” said Gerardo Lopez, a senior editor at KMEX whose first major project upon arriving at the station early last year was “15%.” “It’s as if we have put a mirror in front of them and they looked at themselves in the mirror and liked what they saw. They said, ‘Yes, that picture is totally true. That’s us with our defects, our problems, but we also have the positive side. … Finally someone has told our true story and told the way it was.'”
‘Big Fight’ for Minutes
Each segment was five to six minutes long, which was not an easy sell at first, according to Mr. Lopez, who previously spent 27 years at the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion, including nine as executive editor.
“That was a big fight,” he said. “People in here were telling us it was too long, that we just couldn’t do it, but we kept insisting. If we cut it some more, you take away some of the essence of it.”
Mr. Nichols, who hosted the series with fellow anchor Claudia Botero and reporter Oswaldo Borraez, talked about the origins of “15%,” which took about 18 months to develop and produce.
“We realized there was a big necessity to tell the other side of this story and present a report that was dignifying and really represents what this community is about,” he said. “It started as a dream. … We had no limitations whatsoever in terms of preparing.”
Mr. Nichols, Mr. Lopez and Mr. Quezada all referred to KMEX’s news director, Jorge Mettey, as “the dreamer” of the newsroom, “the visionary,” the one with all the big ideas.
“I remember the very first meeting with the news director,” Mr. Nichols said. “He said, ‘Start dreaming and tell me what you want. Let’s go from there.'”
“It was journalism that needed to be done,” Mr. Lopez said. “I’m very glad we had the time, we had the resources, we had the guidance of the news director.”
A key point that those involved with “15%” all pulled out of the piece was how the portrayal of an ethnic group’s cultural differences also emphasized the similarities between Americans of all races and ethnicities. In reality, everyone has struggles.
“People think Latinos have a different agenda,” Mr. Lopez said. “That’s misunderstood. We care about the same things that everybody else cares about, but maybe we bring a different perspective.”
Everyone was also struck by the timing of the series, which closely preceded the recent massive protests for immigrants’ rights around the country and in Los Angeles in particular as well as the increased media attention regarding the plight of immigrants in the United States.
“We couldn’t have planned it,” Mr. Quezada said. “If we’d tried to plan that, it wouldn’t have worked. … The timing might be even better now. It lends itself to be retold again.”
Mr. Nichols agreed, but he also noted that what may be news to some is a way of life for others.
“The timing could not have been better,” he said. “However, what’s interesting is, for us, Spanish media-or ethnic media, as they like to call us-this is nothing new. This whole debate about immigration, the dilemma and the broken borders, the contributions of the community-it’s new for general market media, but we’ve been covering this for years. That’s been our daily bread, per se. For us, it’s really old news.”