Until about a year ago, Spanish-language television network Telemundo was getting obliterated in the ratings by its giant rival, Univision Communications Inc. In markets where the two networks went head to head, four of every five viewers watching Spanish-language television were watching Univision.
Telemundo Communications Group Inc. suspected the problem was its telenovelas, the prime-time soap operas that form the economic backbone of Spanish broadcasters. Telemundo had imported some from Brazil that ended up being "devastatingly bad," Telemundo President James M. McNamara said. Dubbed from Portuguese into Spanish, the dialogue didn't match the movement of people's mouths and there was "lots of lip-flapping going on," he said.
Telemundo's president, James M. McNamara, says embracing the Mexican dialect is good business.
(Damian Dovarganes -- AP)
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Now, heading into the fall prime-time season, Telemundo has chipped away at Univision's ratings lead, bringing it down to about 3 to 1. The difference? McNamara said the network now produces its own telenovelas and teaches its actors -- whether they hail from Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru or Chile -- to speak like Mexicans.
Mexican television news anchors, to be precise.
For the past year, Telemundo has been employing on-set dialogue coaches to "neutralize" the many national and regional Spanish accents of the network's actors. The network is aiming for the Spanish equivalent of the English-speaking local news broadcaster sound -- a well-paced, accent-free patter that's pretty much the same, whether the anchors work in New York, Ohio or Los Angeles.
Accent-neutral Spanish is the sound of a coming media culture. Spanish-speakers make up the fastest-growing group of minority media consumers in the United States, according to Nielsen Media Research. Univision encourages accent-free Spanish among its actors, even if it does not enforce it as Telemundo does. And neutralized Spanish can be heard elsewhere, as well: Both presidential campaigns employ it in their Spanish-language television ads targeting Hispanic voters.
The results of Telemundo's work can be heard in "Gitanas," the network's new telenovela about gypsies in Mexico, which debuted Tuesday night and featured actors from Colombia (the male lead), Argentina, Peru, Spain and Mexico, all speaking neutralized Mexican Spanish. Nielsen ratings indicated the show was Telemundo's most-watched debut ever.
Mexican Spanish, Telemundo says, hits a middle ground between Colombian Spanish, which the network considers too fast and terse, and some Caribbean accents that are too slow and imprecise. Telemundo executives say Mexican Spanish is the broadest-appeal, easiest-to-understand Spanish -- if Telemundo's coaches can iron out its typical sing-song cadence. In other words, it becomes the Nebraskan of Spanish.
The strategy has brought criticism from some quarters, such as Colombian television and cultural critics, who fault Telemundo for "Mexicanizing" the accents of its Colombian actors. Many Colombians believe their Spanish to be the purest spoken.
McNamara disagrees, offering a different analogy. "It's more the Americanization" of telenovelas. Which may be even worse for guardians of Hispanic culture, who fear that the United States-fueled homogeneity in media will eradicate national and cultural identities. Telemundo itself is owned by an American business icon -- General Electric Co., owners of NBC Universal Inc., which has overseen Telemundo since the media giant purchased it in 2002.