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Aztec Rising: A Spanish-Language Network Makes TV Without Borders

From our winter issue, GOOD 025: The Next Big Thing

It’s past midnight and we’re in Gerry Chapa’s white Mercedes, a hand-me-down from his brother, driving down Sunset Boulevard to the infamous Chateau Marmont, where one of Chapa’s coworkers is a mid-week DJ. I’m one of the few people in Los Angeles who calls him Gerry. His other friends call him Chapa; his family and his employers call him Gerardo. He grew up in Houston, Texas, and Monterrey, Mexico. In college, where we met, his origins were affectionately referred to as Tex-Mex.

Chapa is telling me about the job that just brought him to Los Angeles, the opportunity, he found, with “the most upside” after stints in film production in South Africa and London. Chapa is now the right-hand man for Martin Breidsprecher, the new CEO of Azteca America, the U.S. subsidiary of Mexico’s second-largest television network, TV Azteca.

Breidsprecher has assembled a team—which also includes Chapa’s DJ coworker Rawdon Messenger—to make Azteca America competitive with the big networks like Univision within five years. Breidsprecher is a Mexican of German descent who now lives in the United States. Messenger, Azteca’s director of digital media, is British. Marlene Braga, the vice president for programming, is the Miami-born daughter of Cuban exiles. For those scoring at home, that’s a Mexican-Texan, a German-Mexican, a Cuban-American, and a Spanish-speaking Englishman trying to get American Latinos, primarily of Mexican descent, to watch television produced in the country they or their families left behind.

Easy, right? “There’s a tremendous amount of demand for Spanish-language content, not only from viewers but also from partners such as advertisers and distributors,” says Cesar Conde, the president of Univision. No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for Spanish television and No. 5 overall, Univision is the unquestioned king of Spanish-language TV in the United States. The station regularly beats giants like Fox and NBC in individual ratings battles and reaches 97 percent of Spanish-speaking households in the United States. Azteca America, by comparison, is the No. 5 Spanish-language network, behind not just Univision but also Telemundo, Telefutura, and Estrella. It’s a daunting landscape for little Azteca, which is much younger (only 10 years old, compared to Univision’s 1962 pedigree) and smaller (in terms of distribution) than its competitors. Still, it reaches about 89 percent of Latino households.

That’s a respectable share of the more than 50 million Americans who described themselves as Latino or Hispanic in last year’s census, some 16 percent of everyone in the United States. “Not only is that a population base that is growing, but that is also a population base that is gaining more economic clout,” says Professor Alan Albarran, a Spanish-language media expert at the University of North Texas. “Hispanic consumers have surpassed African-Americans in terms of household income.” Latinos spent nearly $130 billion on discretionary purchases in 2010. They are a coveted audience.

Figuring out what people want to watch on TV is, at its heart, an exercise in figuring out who they are. And if it’s going to compete with the big stations, Azteca has to come up with some answers.

* * *

A few weeks later, I meet Chapa and Breidsprecher for a late lunch at an Italian restaurant. It quickly becomes clear that between them and the staff, I am the only non-Spanish speaker in the building. “I can go around speaking Spanish in L.A. without any problems,” Breidsprecher says with a smile. “You go in the restaurant, everyone greets you in Spanish.”

Los Angeles is the Latino capital of the United States. Almost 10 percent of all Latinos in the country live in L.A. County, making up nearly half of the county’s population and creating the impression of two worlds occupying the same space. “I skip a lot of lines, get out of paying valets sometimes,” Chapa says, smiling and stroking his neatly trimmed dark beard. Growing up in a Spanish-language-dominant household, Chapa’s TV-watching habits were pretty representative of other second-generation immigrants. He watched sports, news, telenovelas, and the long-running weekend variety show Sábado Gigante with his parents and grandparents. Most of that programming hasn’t changed much since he was a kid.

“I think we’re kind of a lost demographic,” says Nabila Chami, a 21-year-old senior at American University who grew up watching Spanish-language TV in Texas and with her grandparents in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Univision and Telemundo don’t appeal to us; they honestly don’t really try to. My grandparents are in their late 70s and have watched that since day one. [The networks] don’t focus on our generation because they have such a pull with that generation.”

For the younger generation, Spanish-language television is nostalgia. Mostly, they watch programs produced in the same language—English—their non-Latino friends do. This is the most daunting problem facing the industry: the skew. The audience for Spanish-language television is older than the Spanish-speaking population. The skew may be a problem for the industry and its advertisers, but it’s also an opportunity. More than one in every five people under 18 in the United States is Latino, and turning those people into loyal viewers could guarantee decades of success.

Conde, the Univision chief, speaks frankly about his company’s goal of making shows “that speak directly to the Latino experience in the United States,” referencing the success of a Dancing with the Stars-style show that attracts a broad audience with a mix of young, bilingual stars and classic Latino celebrities grooving to music in both languages. But Conde refers to those shows as a complement to—not a replacement for— Univision’s internationally produced programs.

“Their strategy remains, ‘We are going to focus on that older consumer,’ and most of their programming and their tastes are geared toward an audience that is over 35 years old,” Albarran says. Sudden changes in Univision’s lineup could create a ratings problem if loyal viewers don’t like what they’re seeing.

Azteca America, though, has nothing to lose. The network is set to leave the prime-time telenovela to its competitors and take advantage of the skew by launching a new slate of programs to court the next generation of Latino television viewers. “My goal is for audiences to watch ... and say, ‘that’s me,’ or ‘thank God that’s not me,’ or ‘I wish it were me,’” says Braga, the programming executive.

Azteca has a few advantages over its competitors: Most of the content it broadcasts is produced in Mexico by its parent network, the second-largest manufacturer of Spanish-language content in the world. This keeps costs low and creates greater opportunities for distribution. Further, the network owns the rights to approximately half of Mexico’s national soccer league broadcasts, a guaranteed ratings winner. Finally, its identity is explicitly Mexican, and more than two-thirds of American Latinos trace their origins to Mexico. But those advantages also force Azteca to walk a tightrope, leveraging home-country nostalgia and pride to attract viewers while still making their shows relevant to their viewers’ American lives. Chapa compares Azteca’s situation to that of any immigrant: Once you cross the border, you have to find a way to live in a different place while remaining, at heart, the same.

“We’re going back to things that are more relevant to the U.S. audience, to the younger U.S. audience,” Breidsprecher says. Like a lot of networks, Azteca

America used to operate under the impression that all Mexicans had the same interests, no matter which side of the border they were living on. “They thought they had the same kind of values, the same kind of thought process,” Breidsprecher says. But then Azteca performed extensive research. “Watching the focus groups, it became very evident that they were very different. If in Mexico it works,” he says, “here, guess what? It doesn’t.”

Mexicans in America, Chapa explains, believe more in social mobility. They came to the United States with aspirations for themselves and their children, and seek out media that reflects those hopes. Many Mexican-produced telenovelas crack class-based jokes that read as condescending to low-income Mexicans who may be poor in the United States but are ambitious and already have access to more plentiful goods than they might have in their home country. For instance, a Mexican telenovela might show a woman doing laundry outdoors.

“We’ve got to go from el lavadero to la lavadora,” Chapa says—from the washboard to the washing machine.

“The cleaning lady comes once a week to my house,” Breidsprecher says. “She has a van, just like I do.”

She probably has a smartphone, too. Latinos are more likely to use a phone to surf the web or watch videos than the rest of the population. Azteca America recently struck a deal to stream its programs on Verizon phones, and Breidsprecher and Messenger have convinced Ricardo Salinas, TV Azteca’s billionaire owner, to let Azteca America distribute programming, including entire television shows, through a variety of online outlets—a move that puts it ahead even of many English-speaking networks.

Still, cultural resonance is key, and the difference between engagement and alienation can be as simple as accents. Mexico City is the country’s cultural center, and its accent dominates Azteca’s broadcasts. Many Mexicans in America, though, are from rural areas, not the city centers, so Azteca America is asking its presenters to moderate their posh accents so viewers feel more connected. The same goes for getting the names right in the United States. “If something happened in Van Nuys, they have to say ‘Van Nyes,’ not ‘Van Noo-ees,’” Breidsprecher says. “What we’re trying to do is build a bridge so that the producers understand who the target market is and who they are producing for.”

The answer is an increasingly American audience, which means adapting existing shows to deal with American themes and creating new ones that take their cues from English-language programs that Latinos watch. The company is producing a reality show about aspiring soccer players in the Mexican leagues, and has a prime-time hit called Al Extremo—to the extreme!— which shows clips featuring violent, racy, or supernatural content. There is talk of more news reporting on the United States, original children’s programming, a la Nicktoons, and Comedy Central-style roasts.

But whether it’s a show for kids in Denver or college dudes in D.C., everything Azteca does still starts south of the Rio Grande.

* * *

When I arrive at TV Azteca’s campus in Mexico City, Lalo Quero ties a “Yo Soy Azteca” ribbon around my wrist. Quero, an Azteca veteran who is something of a company cheerleader, shows me around the grounds, past an Eastern-style health zone (Salinas is a fan, Quero explains) that offers employees acupuncture, cupping, and massage. We walk through the master control room; Azteca America appears to be broadcasting an infomercial on how to fit a brassiere. In an empty sportscasting studio, larger-than-life athletes cover the walls—Chicharito, the Mexican soccer star, Rafael Nadal, the Spanish tennis player, and Mark Sanchez, the Mexican-American New York Jets quarterback. He’s developing a following here, Quero says.

We stop by the set of a talk show called Cosas de La Vida—The Stuff of Life—hosted by Rocío Sánchez Azuara, who dispenses straight talk to a mostly female audience. She’s Mexico’s answer to Oprah, with a dash of Jerry Springer. When we enter the sound stage, the audience is applauding and hissing, and the guests are on their feet, shouting, with Sánchez Azuara in the middle, alternately provoking and mediating in four-inch gold heels.

To resonate with different demographics, Cosas films different episodes for broadcast in Mexico and the United States. After the show, I ask Sánchez Azuara what she changes for her American audience. “We need to be more hard, because the people there think we are so soft,” she says. “More powerful, more punch!”

That reality is stark on the set of Al Extremo, the shock-video show. Producer Omar Ochoa can broadcast grisly footage of narcos torturing their enemies in the United States that he cannot show in Mexico, but some sexier clips that barely raise eyebrows south of the border make U.S. audiences uncomfortable. He says part of his show’s appeal to Mexican-Americans is that it provides an unfiltered look at what’s happening back home, with man-on-the-street interviews in Mexican cities. But he is excited to bring his show north—he’ll soon begin scouting locations in Texas and Los Angeles.

The last stop of the day, a short drive from campus, is the huge complex of sound stages and dressing rooms where Azteca films its telenovelas. Six hundred people work here. We stop by the set of Cielo Rojo, where they’re shooting a rather intimidating prison scene, and meet the award-winning star, Regina Torné, who has been performing since 1966 but is perhaps best known to American audiences for her role as the mother in Like Water for Chocolate. Torné acts every bit the grand dame, ribbing the director, actors, and assorted production flunkies, shouting for a cafecito, and praising her stylist. To my surprise, she speaks perfect English.

“I was raised in San Diego,” she says, but born in Tabasco, Mexico. When she was 20, she returned to study medicine, but fell in love with drama. I ask what kind of audience she pictures when she performs.

“People!” she says. “Just as in the movies, just as in the night club, you have to win them with your work.”

* * *

While Spanish-dominant households watch a lot of Spanish-language TV, bicultural or English-language households watch much less, and successive generations become more and more English dominant. That’s not a problem for Azteca America now, because its focus is still on first- and second-generation Latinos. But as Latino births overtake Latino immigration, it is possible that, like ethnic media created and consumed by past waves of American immigrants, Spanish-language television could be set for a decline immediately after its bubble.

“Are we going to have Spanish-language media by 2040?” Albarran asks. “Naturally, the main players are very bullish; they think it will be here for decades to come, despite the fact that the younger audiences are more into bilingual and bicultural patterns.” Some argue that if the U.S. economy improves, immigration will be more attractive and reverse the trend toward Spanish-dominant Latinos.

There’s a key distinction between this wave of immigration and those of previous generations. “Most of the early European immigrants, when they got off the boat in Ellis Island, and a lot of the Asian immigrants when they got off the boat in San Francisco, that was it for the old country,” says Federico Subervi, a professor at Texas State University San Marcos. “That has never, ever been the case for Latinos from Mexico, Cuba, Central America. There’s always been a revolving door of going back and forth, bringing family members, going back there, staying a few years.”

Technology, too, changes the equation. It keeps immigrants closer to their native countries. Messenger compares Azteca America to BBC America, the venerable British broadcaster’s offering in its former colony.

“When I first left, I tried to follow the UK news, but 11 years after I left, I’m interested in the international framing,” he says. “I’ve become less of an expat; I feel like that’s a process a lot of people go through.”

Latinos are bending and being bent by life in the United States, Subervi says, which means that Spanish-language media will continue to thrive. But it will change and become more targeted to different demographics, just as English-language media has. “Latinos are selectively picking what of their culture they keep and what of the other cultures they adopt,” Subervi says. “It’s a very situational latinidad—I’ll pick Latin music when I’m out with my Latino friends; if I’m not with my Latino friends, I’ll have the rock ’n’ roll.”

There may be an audience out there just waiting for an invitation. Coral Diaz, a 35-year-old second-generation Mexican-American, recently caught her parents watching Teresa, a popular telenovela, and got hooked. Now she is showing her children Plaza Sésamo (Sesame Street).

“If they have novelas like Teresa, they have a fan for life!” Diaz says. “Maybe there needs to be more of an effort on their part to advertise to the English-language community, to find those of us Latinos who forgot they were there in the first place.”

This isn’t just a story about Latinos assimilating to American culture. Ugly Betty was, after all, the U.S. adaptation of a long-popular telenovela. NBC bought the rights to a popular Colombian novela called Sin Tetas No Hay Paraíso—loosely translated, No Tits, No Heaven. Good luck getting that past the censors.

“Anglos are becoming more Latino with their food and their music. They’ll embrace it,” Subervi says. “They’ll be Latinos one moment; the next, they’ll be Anglos.”

As Azteca America has learned, it’s not just about speaking the right language. It’s about telling the right story.

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