Univision, ABC News team up on TV network for English-speaking Latinos

Alexia Fodere/For The Washington Post - Jorge Ramos is Univision’s star anchor.

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DORAL, FL — On Jan. 18, Univision’s star anchor, Jorge Ramos, arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court for a high-profile interview with special appeal to his massive audience. Ramos, by far the most recognized and respected face of Spanish-language news in the United States, greeted Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the self-styled “Wise Latina” who’d made history as the first Hispanic on the court.

Before the cameras rolled, though, Sotomayor — who was born into a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx — requested a small favor. “She asked me, ‘If I have a problem with my Spanish, please help me with my translation,’ ” Ramos recalls one recent afternoon in his spare corner office at the Univision studios in the Miami suburb of Doral.

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“Sotomayor, she’s fantastic, but she struggles with Spanish,” Ramos says.  “She spoke Spanish very slow.”

And, indeed, just minutes into the interview about her memoir, Sotomayor — who speaks good, but somewhat labored Spanish — was groping for a word. Rather than wait for a cue, she simply said it in English — “strengths” — and moved on.

Univision, already a goliath, sees another possible gold mine in the growing population of Latinos who, like Sotomayor, are more comfortable in English. The network is partnering with ABC News on a 24-hour news and information channel called Fusion set to debut in late summer.

The partners are especially interested in chasing second-generation Latinos, particularly millennials, the 20- and 30-somethings, who would rather communicate in English and may speak little or no Spanish. Witness Julian Castro, the boyish Mexican-American mayor of San Antonio thrust into national prominence by Democrats desperate for a Latino star, even though he doesn’t speak Spanish fluently.

It’s a risky and complicated endeavor but if they pull it off, they just might be creating a new cultural, economic and political force at the precise moment in American history when Hispanic power is in its steepest ascendance. The goal is no less than establishing the new network and the rest of Univision’s empire as the “Hispanic heartbeat of America,” says Cesar Conde, the silky smooth, 39-year-old president of Univision networks who was a White House fellow during the George W. Bush administration.

 But beneath the grand rhetoric and the grand business plans, something much more subtle and much more interesting is at work. What they’re engaged in is a process of anthropological discovery. They’re trying to figure out who this new person is, this son of a Guatemalan maid who listens to the Black Keys and wants to be a doctor, this daughter of a Mexican fieldworker who watches “Girls” and is headed to Cornell in the fall. They’re trying to figure out what this new person wants to hear and, of course, what this new person wants to buy. 

They’re trying to figure out how to talk to a new America. And they’re still not sure how to do it.

Making shows out of maybes

Walk down the back stairs of the modernist bungalow beneath the palms in Coconut Grove and your cellphone signal flags, sputters and dies. The downstairs room in the home of Isaac Lee, Univision’s 42-year-old news president, is a screening room now. But it was built by a previous owner as a fallout shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis era. Welcome to South Florida.

A horseshoe-shaped couch is in the center of the room. But half the young broadcast and digital execs, some dressed in jeans and untucked shirts, flop on the floor instead. They wrestle with Lee’s brown Labrador Retriever — Chocolate — whose name they pronounce CHOKE-oh-latte, as if the beast was a new offering at the local Starbucks.

 “Stop making out with the dog!” one of the programmers calls out as Chocolate licks one face after another.

A network is being born here, conjured during brainstorming sessions, such as this one, from an amalgam of assiduously curated data and sudden inspirations. The last time the group met, someone was making a presentation about their target audience, an evolving bull’s eye that wobbles in a range between 18-year-olds and 30-somethings and encompasses everything from artsy urbanites to buttoned-down professionals. Wait a second, I was just hanging with those people, thought Rayner Ramirez, a former Dateline NBC producer hired to help develop the new channel.

While Chocolate curls next to a young producer, Ramirez pitches a weekly program about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on New York’s Lower East Side. Voila! A show, or at least, a possible show — conceived in a matter of weeks, complete with demo footage from the New York hot spot.

“Didn’t you used to spit there, Alejandro?” Ramirez asks an exec slouched deep in the folds of the big blue couch.

“Yeah, in college,” comes the casual-cool, ain’t-no-big-thing response.

Maybe the show will be a contest.

Maybe the show will have profiles.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

They’ve got a lot of time to fill and a lot of maybes that are still maybes.

They’ve got stars to parlay — and amplify. Fusion is developing a voicy late-night news program anchored by Leon Krauze, the host of the Univision nightly news in Los Angeles — a program that routinely tops that huge market’s English-language newscasts and is touted by Univision as the top-rated local newscast in the country. And they’ve brought in Billy Kimball, a highly respected Hollywood veteran who has written for Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central, as well as penning numerous episodes of the Simpsons, to shape satirical programming.

They want to be edgy. They want to be unique. They want to be the place “the cool kids hang out.” They want to be a broadcast network that moves fast, thinking “digital first.” So, of course, they have a web whiz whose name is . . . Nuria Net. “People think I made up my name,” she shrugs.

They talk about “extreme news,” “irreverent writing.” They want “nontraditional pundits,” one exec enthuses.

“If you can think of them, we don’t want them!” half the room calls back, part pep rally, part Greek chorus.

Getting cool requires delicate maneuvering. Take, for instance, the case of Ramos, the silver-haired anchor whose serious, authoritative on-air presence is more Scott Pelley than Jon Stewart. 

Lee’s team is thinking seriously about broaching a once-unthinkable subject with Ramos, who will lend his star power to the new network by anchoring an evening news program while maintaining his duties at Univision. They might ask Ramos to take off his tie. This possibility is raised with an air of nervous anticipation. (Later, in an interview, Ramos doesn’t hesitate to endorse the idea. “I would love to! I think ties are a mistake.”)

The group has all the stats, of course.

They’ve seen the Pew Hispanic Center projections that Hispanics will soar from 17 percent of the population now to between 26 and 29 percent by 2050, and they know that a large chunk of that growth is expected to be the children of immigrants.

But they’re still taking the measure of this new demographic. They’ve dispatched Alejandra Campoverdi, a former White House deputy communications director for Hispanic media under President Obama, to conduct focus groups with Hispanic millennials.

What she’s discovering is that Latinos are way more complicated than you might think. For one, there’s no single Latino profile. Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans — they each have their nuances. She’s talked with Latinos who profess to not being particularly attuned to so-called Latino topics, stuff too obviously intended to be about them or to reach them. She’s found a community with hair-trigger sensitivities to any hint that someone might be pandering to them.

Yet she’s also found Latinos who are sick of television programs populated mostly by white people, and shows where the only Latinos are Guatemalan maids and Mexican housekeepers. And she’s found Latinos pining to see “different shades of brown.”

Watching footage of Campoverdi’s intimate chats, a couple of things become quite clear: Not only are Univision and ABC trying to figure out who these new Americans are, but these new Americans are trying to figure out who they are, too.

Reluctance on both sides

Fusion almost didn’t happen. In March 2011, Lee and Conde flew to New York to meet with Ben Sherwood, who’d recently become president of ABC News. The Univision guys weren’t expecting much when they sat down for a fancy catered lunch in an executive conference room on the 22nd floor of ABC’s building, Lee says.

Sherwood, who grew up in Southern California, broke the ice by apologizing for the formality and shattered it even further by telling his guests about a book proposal he’d sold in the 1990s about the “unwhitening of America.” He’d been inspired to write the book — which he never got around to finishing — by anti-immigrant measures in his home state.

The Univision delegation was thinking small-scale, suggesting that Ramos and his popular co-anchor, Maria Elena Salinas, appear on some ABC news talk shows, and that Ramos be allowed to ask a question if ABC hosted a presidential debate. Sherwood liked all that, but he wanted to talk about bigger things.

What started in that conference room ran headlong into major resistance at both networks. Univision is a cash machine that has grown to a dozen networks, including 24-hour sports and telenovela channels. But its strength has been distribution, particularly its ability to funnel Mexican soap operas to a U.S. audience, rather than creation of original programming. ABC news executives encountered a cautious corporate culture at its parent, Disney. Despite several highly successful arrangements, Disney was still leery of joint ventures. At several key points in the talks, insiders say, Univision’s new CEO — the former AOL board chairman and NBC executive, Randy Falco — had to intervene to block objections from top Univision brass who were dead set against the deal.

“There were moments when we thought it would unravel,” Sherwood says of Fusion, which is owned 50-50 by ABC and Univision.

Executives for both ABC and Univision proclaim that they’re committed to the new venture for “the long haul.” And they have considerable leverage negotiating with cable systems for wide distribution because Disney owns ESPN. But the budget is puny by television standards, merely $270 million spread over five years, according to an executive with knowledge of the spending blueprint.

Ramos calls Fusion an “experiment . . . they might not want me to tell you this, but it is.” Ramos says he’s not sure whether he’ll appear permanently on the new network or temporarily, and he expects the programming to evolve once it launches. “It’s not going to be easy,” he says, “because we don’t know how to reach that audience.”

A flood of ABC employees signed up for Spanish lessons once the deal was cemented, while Univision news bosses are scrambling to find news writers . A major problem they face, one news executive says, is that even though almost all of Univision’s news employees speak English, many do not write well enough in English to churn out scripts for the new network.

There’s also the matter of meshing the cultures of the two organizations into a cohesive whole based in studios now under construction in Miami. During an interview with Conde, an older Cuban woman in a blue smock who everyone knows simply as Martika walked into his spacious office without knocking. Martika, who is something of a legend because she occasionally appears on Univision programs, set down a “cortadito,” the luscious, ferociously strong Cuban coffee that comes in a small espresso-style cup.

Utterly unintimidated about stepping into a meeting being held by the president of the networks, she launched into a discussion of the coffee in Spanish: maybe she didn’t include enough milk, maybe there wasn’t enough sugar. And Conde patiently deferred.

 When she left, Conde pondered a question about whether a visitor could get a proper cortadito at ABC headquarters. He smiled. Probably not.

A force in culture and politics

Fusion may be launching in 2013, but the only date a lot of people want to talk about is 2016. The prospect of a channel that could shape the opinions of Latinos, whose role in electing Obama was so crucial, is both tantalizing and terrifying.

“Politically, young Latinos are the holy grail,” says Carlos Odio, a former Hispanic outreach strategist in the Obama White House. “As campaigns get more micro-targeted we’re going to need better vehicles to reach the kind of Hispanics who preferred ‘Ugly Betty’ to ‘Betty, la Fea.’”

Some top Republicans are jittery about Fusion. They see Univision as leaning left. The network has beefed up its investigative news unit — producing high-profile pieces about Iranian spy networks in Latin America and the “Fast & Furious” guns scandal. But it has also stepped beyond traditional journalism in recent years to crusade for legalizing illegal immigrants and even conduct voter registration drives. 

The tension erupted briefly, but significantly, during the 2012 presidential campaign, when Univision tussled with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a possible 2016 presidential candidate. Rubio was angered by a Univision report about the quarter-century-old drug arrest of his brother-in-law. His staff accused Lee of offering a deal to kill or soften the story in return for Rubio appearing for an interview, a charge Lee denied. Republicans refused to participate in a planned Univision presidential debate in protest. 

“I’m optimistic and I’m glad they’re coming on the grid, but a lot of people are withholding judgment to see what if any ideological bent they will have,” said Ana Navarro, a Rubio booster and Republican strategist. “The ongoing tense relationship with Marco Rubio certainly doesn’t help.”

Rep. Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat, predicted that Republicans would be forced to make nice with the new channel because of its potential as a force in the “crossover of Hispanic culture . . . that makes Hispanics, and Univision, more powerful.”

Top Republicans say they are already hoping to make overtures to Fusion before it goes on the air. “Our job at this point, rather than complain or criticize, is to meet with these folks and hope to impart on them the importance of covering our points of view more extensively,” says Al Cardenas, the Cuban-American chairman of the American Conservative Union who has advised Republican politicians on reaching the Hispanic electorate.

Ramos is often the object of GOP concerns about Fusion because of his open advocacy of legalizing undocumented migrants, dating back to a period when most Republican leaders were staunchly opposed. Ramos makes no apologies. He insists he’s intent on Fusion representing a “pro-Hispanic” viewpoint, but not favoring either Republicans or Democrats. His supporters point to his aggressive questioning of Obama about immigration as proof that he won’t go easy on Democrats.

Sherwood, the ABC news president, says “Fusion will be guided by the standards of ABC News.” But he leaves open the possibility of “clearly delineated opinion or advocacy.”

“We don’t intend to change Univision,” Sherwood says. “Univision doesn’t intend to change us.”

A clearly shifting demographic

During his off hours, Ramos says he’s the family driver, hauling kids to water polo and the like. The 54-year-old anchor didn’t speak English when he came to the United States from Mexico on a student visa as a 28-year-old, but his children were born here.

“When I talk to them, it’s always in English,” Ramos says. “When I talk to them in Spanish, they answer me in English.” He may be the biggest thing in Spanish-language news, but his kids don’t watch his show and their friends don’t either.

On those car rides with his kids and their friends, he says, they are always correcting him. He’s chosen the wrong word. His grammar is incorrect. He’s pronounced something wrong.

“I still have an accent,” he says in a Mexican-inflected voice that is a kind of music of its own. “And I’ll die with an accent.”

The children of the people who watch him each night on Univision will have accents, too. He knows that.

They’ll sound like Americans.

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