Eyeing Spanish speakers under 35
V-me courts viewers with a desire to learn
When V-me began gathering programs to bring Latino viewers to public TV, its leaders wanted to embrace pubTV’s service-oriented philosophy.
“A lot of what makes public broadcasting special and meaningful in the lives of people within the general market simply didn’t exist — before V-me — in Spanish,” says V-me President Carmen DiRienzo. Accordingly, the digital channel — a for-profit venture developed in partnership with WNET and aired as a DTV multicast by nearly 30 pubTV stations — programmed a schedule with some of pubTV’s program strengths: preschool, lifestyle, science, documentary and current affairs.
But V-me’s execs didn’t want to simply create a Spanish version of PBS, in part because V-me’s audience differs from pubTV’s in a major way — it’s much younger. “Fifty percent of Hispanics in this country are less than 35 years old,” says Guillermo Sierra, V-me’s content chief.
“We have 5 million Hispanic kids that are less than five years old,” says Sierra, who previously oversaw programming for Spanish Broadcasting System, a U.S. media and entertainment company, and Discovery Communications Latin America/Iberia. “We had to be very careful when we crafted our network to skew younger.”
Looking toward its second season in March, V-me is trying to build a fast-paced, younger identity. The original pop-music interview program Estudio Billboard, which debuted in October, is part of the plan, along with strong doses of travel, film and even reality programming. The informative content, says Sierra, must ultimately entertain.
The network is also strengthening its public affairs programming, which offers PBS-style in-depth coverage that is absent in much of the Spanish-language media. Viva Voz, V-me’s nightly original public affairs program, is devoting itself to discussion of election issues, and V-me Noticias, a new hourly news-breaks service in primetime, will partner with Viva Voz to report live on Super Tuesday during the conventions and on election night.
V-me has also partnered with ImpreMedia, a Spanish-language newspaper company, to produce election coverage on-air, online and in print, and last week V-me announced a partnership with the New York Times to produce a weekly news show, Páginas del New York Times, premiering March 1.
This content is “desperately needed,” says América Rodriguez, former NPR reporter and associate professor in the Latino media studies program at the University of Texas at Austin. “There’s a hole there in the media marketplace,” she says. “It’s silly for public broadcasting to do so little for this segment of the market, which is so desperate for [media] other than imports from Latin America.”
The diversity of the Spanish-speaking audience — class, country of origin, education — makes programming a challenge, says Sierra, but the channel’s intent is to cater to everyone from recent immigrants to U.S.-born Latinos. Sierra believes V-me’s viewers share common values about improving their lives and learning more. “That has nothing to do with their level of education; that has nothing to do with their income,” he says. “It has to do with their own personal passion to be something better, to grow.”
Viewers had a tremendous need for educational Spanish-language children’s programming, says DiRienzo, and although V-me has no ratings to check, its five-hour block of preschool shows draws the most enthusiastic response from viewers via the V-me website. Sierra says it’s clear some letters are from people without much education.
This makes sense to Patricia Boero, executive director of Latino Public Broadcasting. “Latinos place such value on education,” she says, “that regardless of the level of education of the parents, they would certainly seek for their children to be viewing more educational content.”
In the vein of PBS Kids, V-me’s shows strive to help kids be more prepared for kindergarten. A panel of educational advisors helped put together the curriculum and continues to advise on children’s programming, says Sierra.
V-me regularly carries about 10 preschool shows and one for elementary ages—the WNET-produced, PBS Kids Go! program Cyberchase. WNET’s preschool-age Franny’s Feet (Los Pies Mágicos de Franny) is also part of the lineup, as is Plaza Sesamo, a Mexican-produced cousin of Sesame Street. The other programs, produced in Spain, Australia, the Netherlands and Britain, come from companies such as HIT Entertainment, Spain’s Neptuno and Cromosoma, and the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
This year, V-me will produce its first children’s program, a Spanish version of the Australian live-action preschool show The Fairies. V-me bought the format for the show, which follows the adventures of fairies Harmony and Rhapsody in their enchanted garden. “We’re going to produce it with a Latin cast — more diverse than the original production — and we’re going to rewrite some of the songs to make them fit better into the Latin rhythms,” says Sierra. V-me has English, Spanish and Portuguese rights covering the Americas, Spain and Portugal, and plans to finance the production by selling it internationally.
“We have heard so much from parents who say, ‘We are so proud to be in this country, we’re so glad our kids are learning English . . . but we do want to preserve the two languages,’” says Sierra. With more and more Latinos becoming bilingual, Sierra sees an opportunity for V-me to help young people with their Spanish skills.
The theory some years ago, he says, was that as the U.S. Latino population grew, more Latinos would transition to English. “What’s really happening,” he says, “is people are understanding that it’s okay to speak [both] languages, and the more we speak the more successful we’ll be.”
However, he thinks there’s a need to clearly define media content as English or Spanish — not Spanglish. V-me’s role, he believes, is to help bilingual young people speak one of those languages correctly.
Packing the grid
For its adult programs, V-me looked to public television abroad for inspiration, says Sierra.
“Public television in the U.S. has chosen to stay in a model that is very successful and very important, but that is not necessarily the same model that other countries are following,” he says. “When you look at public television around the world, says Sierra, it’s more in-your-face — and more trendsetting. He points to the BBC’s The Office, for example, and the BBC’s original version of Dancing with the Stars. Spanish pubTV, he says, was the grandfather of reality shows such as American Idol.
V-me’s adult lineup, however, still borrows generously from U.S. pubTV offerings — particularly WNET’s. The other programs come mostly from Britain, Australia, Canada and U.S. commercial ventures (list below).
The channel’s own programs are clearly related — if sometimes distantly — to the pubTV family. The lifestyle program Aire Yoga, hosted by Spanish actress Anna Silvetti, is filmed in Miami and broadcast every morning. Sierra thinks it could eventually find an international home on a network such as Discovery Health.
V-me’s music interview program, Estudio Billboard, was one of the network’s first original program ideas. Sierra thinks it may be one of the few shows teenagers are watching on V-me. Hosted by Leila Cobo, who heads up Billboard magazine’s Latin division, the hour-long show is an intimate one-on-one with a small studio audience. Interviews focus on the life and inspirations of big-name Latin artists such as Juanes, Maná, José Feliciano, Gloria Trevi, Daddy Yankee and Gloria Estefan. V-me has captioned the show in English to reach a crossover audience, and last month the network made a deal with Miami-based Venevision International to distribute the program abroad.
Estudio Billboard is fully financed by V-me — Cobo brought only the Billboard name with her. She’d hosted a series of Q&A sessions at the Billboard Latin Music Conference and had been thinking of taking the format to television. The hope, says Sierra, is that the Billboard name attracts more viewers and makes musicians more likely to agree to interviews. The show is shot in a commercial studio in Miami, a hub for Latin artists and a place to catch them coming in and out of the country.
The core of V-me’s primetime is Viva Voz, taped in WNET’s studios and, one night a week, on location in Washington, D.C. Now airing at 10 p.m. but switching to 9 p.m. in March (with a re-feed at midnight for the West Coast), Viva Voz is hosted primarily by Jorge Gestoso, former anchor of CNN en Español.
The format has mostly been a Charlie Rose-style conversation with an impressive array of newsmakers, cultural figures and Latino leaders — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, Guatemalan indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú, activist Dolores Huerta, members of Congress and a variety of actors and musicians.
The show has also broadcast specials from New Orleans, New York’s Fashion Week, the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference, and the Guggenheim museum in Spain. In July, Viva Voz began Viva Voz desde Washington, Thursday night shows taped in Washington, D.C., and focused on politics and policy. Washington guests have included Sergio Jellinek of the World Bank; Roberto Suro, founding director of the Pew Hispanic Center; Ana Avendano, director of the AFL-CIO’s program for immigrant workers; Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.); and Juan Garcia de Oteyza, minister of cultural affairs at the Mexican Embassy.
Though clearly kin to shows such as NewsHour or Tavis Smiley, Viva Voz’s graphics, theme music and camera movement are a bit more contemporary and visually stimulating. Sierra is looking toward what he calls “Viva Voz 2.0” in 2008, a glossier, more segmented product that gets away from the Charlie Rose format by adding more hosts and interviewees on location, around the table and online. “We want to move it faster,” says Sierra, “and we also want to include ways of adding user-generated content.” One idea: viewers would post video comments on YouTube about content they saw on Viva Voz. V-me also wants to stream the show live during its taping so viewers can send in questions by e-mail.
Boero says she’s drawn to the “intelligent journalism” of V-me’s current affairs programming. “Just for that alone, I welcome V-me,” she says. “I have satellite at home, so I can actually watch the regular news from other countries.” But V-me’s in-depth coverage sets it apart, she says.
The hope is that international audiences might agree — V-me plans to cut a “best of Viva Voz” to distribute internationally.
Behind the scenes
V-me aspires to have as much original programming as possible, says Sierra,. “but that’s obviously the most expensive challenge.” V-me uses a small studio at WNET—with room for a three-person table for Viva Voz—and a few edit rooms. Otherwise, the channel has to find and rent studio space, mostly in New York City and Miami, which is challenging and costly, says Sierra.
Remaking acquired programs for a U.S. Spanish-speaking audience also eats up financial resources. Sierra says there’s a constant dilemma: “What is better—a show originally produced in Spanish, or a show that was not originally produced in Spanish that is Spanish-adapted? What we’re looking for is the shows that have the content we want to provide . . . [and] the emotional connection with the audience,” he says. “Sometimes a show produced in the U.K. or maybe in Australia may have a lot more of those elements than a show produced originally in Spanish.”
Adapting a show entails more than translation or dubbing. V-me rewrites scripts for shows, reversions graphics in Spanish, and sometimes replaces hosts of shows. It does cultural adaptations of some portions, and if a show was made in Spain, it re-dubs the Spanish. “We have a little in-house apartment called language customization,” says Sierra. “We support that department with 14 or 16 different providers all over the world.”
V-me also has to remake some shows’ music and sound- effects audio, which is not always available as a separate track. “For example,” says Sierra, “[a] cooking show was shot in the kitchen, and the noises of the spoon hitting the bowl are made as the woman is talking, and all that is recorded on one single track. When we get that show, we need to recreate the music and effects. So somebody has to redo the voicing . . . and somebody later in the studio has to hit the spoon against the bowl.”
The general cost to remake a show in Spanish, says Sierra, starts at $1,500-$2,000 an hour and soars with extensive shooting and graphics work. Fortunately for V-me, the Food Network had already reversioned all its cooking shows into Spanish.
Partnerships at home and abroad
Using the studio space and resources of partner pubTV stations could allow V-me to make more programming. V-me plans a Viva Voz tour with broadcasts from member stations this year. The plan is to discuss issues affecting each station’s viewing area and to report on the lives of local Latinos.
Sierra would like to see more locally produced content, which V-me could incorporate into its national feed, making it into a true member-fed network. Currently, the channel has designated pre-emptable times in the schedule for local programming, but little is being made. WTTW in Chicago has created Ventana a Chicago, produced by Dan Soles and hosted by Eddie Arruza, for its V-me lineup.
If stations start producing more Spanish programs, V-me may be a good resource for distribution deals. Sierra says V-me is currently working to help Maryland Public Television’s Motorweek get international distribution. “It’s a great way of helping our partner stations expand to other markets. Normally they wouldn’t start selling in Spanish-speaking territory.”
Boero says Latino Public Broadcasting is also talking with V-me about running some of LPB’s documentaries. “I would be very interesting in extending [the docs’] life and seeking those new viewers. We’re talking about what we have in the archives . . . but then also looking at some of the programs we have in the pipeline or producers that might need additional support. I think that could be so enriching for everybody to start thinking about producing bilingual programs.”
Where V-me programs
WNET: Cyberchase, Franny’s Feet
Sesame Workshop: Plaza Sesamo
HIT Entertainment: Rubbadubbers teaches problem-solving and social skills; The Hoobs is about electronic communication, such as “hoobmail.”
Neptuno (Spain): Connie the Cow is about the natural world; Dougie in Disguise teaches about different jobs.
Cromosomo (Spain): Baby Triplets teaches new words.
Australian Broadcasting Corp.: Five Minutes More is about bedtime stories.
Halifax Film/Alliance Atlantis (Canada): Lunar Jim teaches science concepts (U.S. debut).
U.S. public TV shows reversioned in Spanish by V-me: WLIW’s Visions, Maryland Public Television’s Motorweek, and WNET’s Nature, Wide Angle, Great Performances, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and Expose: America’s Investigative Reports.
KCET: Los Ninos in Su Casa
WGBH: La Plaza: Conversations with Maria Hinojosa is a half-hour interview program with Latino thinkers and newsmakers taped in English for WGBH and in Spanish for V-me, though some guests beg off the Spanish version because they do better in English, Hinojosa says.
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions: Partnered with V-me to produce half-hour Science on the NewsHour segments, hosted by journalist Rafael Pi Roman.
National Geographic: In $100 Taxi, a series from Canada, hosts give a cab driver $100 to show them secrets of a city. In Chasing Che, two young Latin Americans retrace Che Guevara’s adventures. Also Wild Chronicles and
BBC: Around the World in 80 Treasures; Explorations, about science and new technology; Killing for a Living, about nature’s predators.
Food Network: Seven shows, including Thirty Minute Meals with Rachael Ray, Barefoot Contessa, and two shows originally produced in Spanish—Mas Sabor en Meno Tiempo with Mexican chef Alfredo Oropeza and Nuestra Concina with chefs Aarón Sánchez and Alex García.
National Film Board of Canada: Beyond Medicine, about natural and ancient treatments.
Alliance Atlantis (Canada): Turning Points of History and Flightpath, an aviation program.
Southern Star Australia: The Block, a reality show in which four couples move into dilapidated apartments to renovate and sell them.
International Management Group/Transworld International: TransWorld Sport, broadcast from Europe within 24 hours of transmission, covers soccer, Formula One and other sports.
Editorial Clio: from Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, Clio Presente, a series about Mexico’s history and relationship with the United States.
Movies: Contemporary Spanish-language films from around the world air nightly on V-me.
Web page posted March 3, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC