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.
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.
"All of our producers and directors are focused on this," McNamara said. "Honestly, it's an obsession with me."
He likens the situation to Americans trying to watch British television shows, such as "The Office" or "Are You Being Served?" and wrestling with various U.K. accents. Likewise, U.S. local news anchors speak in an accent-neutral manner to appeal to as many viewers as possible, knowing that some may switch off a newscaster who has a Cajun, Brooklyn or Boston Back Bay accent.
At its Miami area headquarters, Telemundo employs veteran Mexican actress and producer Adriana Barraza, who drills the network's actors on accent. She focuses on an accent's "melody," attempting to make it "musically flat," she explained in an e-mail translated into English by Telemundo staff. Then, she tries to standardize the way actors pronounce their vowels and consonants, which vary from country to country.
For example, in Argentina, "pollo," Spanish for "chicken," is pronounced "pojz-joh," where in Cuba it sounds like "po-eeoh." Barraza tries to get everyone to say the universally understood "poh-yoh." Argentine and Uruguayan accents are the hardest to flatten, she said. But an apt student from any country can make the transition to Mexican-neutral in 15 days.
Her first job, however, is to mentally prepare the actor for the training.
"The feeling of losing your identity . . . the fear of ridicule and mockery . . . the feeling of being an impostor by taking an accent that is not theirs by birth" are the toughest hurdles to overcome, she wrote. Some of her students never master the skill and end up "only able to work in their [home] country or [they] completely disappeared from Mexico's acting scene," she wrote.
For McNamara, who was born in Panama, the son of a Defense Department contractor, embracing the Mexican dialect is good business. About 80 percent of Telemundo's potential audience -- households whose viewing habits are monitored by Nielsen -- is Mexican.
Telemundo needs any advantage it can devise against Univision, a titan whose reach over its potential audience is so great its analogue does not exist in American English-speaking media.
Telemundo is the nation's No. 2 Spanish-language network. It is dwarfed by Univision, which owns 25 full- and low-power television stations and has 56 broadcast affiliates, reaching 98 percent of Spanish-speaking households. Univision also owns the TeleFutura broadcast network (which is nipping at Telemundo's heels) and Galavision cable network, 68 U.S. radio stations, a music company whose artists constitute more than 40 percent of all Latin acts on the charts, and the most popular Spanish-language Web site.
By comparison, Telemundo owns 24 full- and low-power television stations and has 32 affiliates, reaching 91 percent of U.S. Spanish-speaking households. But in cities where Univision and Telemundo stations go head to head, Univision stations dominate. For instance, all of the top 20 Spanish-language television programs during the week of July 25 aired on Univision, according to Nielsen Media Research. Telemundo's highest-rated show checked in at No. 26.
Univision also has enjoyed similar dominance in ad revenue. However, Telemundo increased its total revenue by about one-third over last year and was able to charge about 7 percent more for its shows compared with 2003, NBC Universal said, indicating that Telemundo has made some inroads into Univision's near hegemony.
Though Telemundo contributes a thin slice to its parent's overall revenue, NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright said at General Electric's July 22 board meeting that the unit was a growth engine for the company, anticipating annual increases of $100 million in revenue over the next few years. Telemundo accounted for nearly $300 million of NBC Universal's $4.5 billion in first-half 2004 revenue, up about 10 percent from the first half of 2003, McNamara said. Commercials on the telenovelas account for nearly 60 percent of Telemundo's total revenue.
At Univision, about half of the network's telenovelas are imported, produced by Televisa, the Mexican television giant, Venevision in Venezuela, and others. (Televisa executive Emilio Azcarraga Milmo is regarded by many as the father of accent-neutral Mexican television Spanish, which he began advocating more than two decades ago.) The other half is produced by Univision. Univision said it encourages its actors to speak in a way that will be understood by all viewers and provides coaching on an case-by-case basis, but employs no coaching program, though Televisa and other producers do. Accent-scrubbing can have its downside, Univision said.
Univision appreciates "that our talent should maintain the essence of who they are, and not abandon their valuable uniqueness and individual culture and heritage they bring to their role at Univision," Univision President Ray Rodriguez said via e-mail.
Agreed, said Fabio Lopez de la Roche, a professor at Colombia's Universidad Nacional, who criticized Telemundo in an April article in a Bogota newspaper, saying: "In the search for massive audiences and for a Hispanic public which is highly fragmented in their identities, these soaps seem diluted and deprived of socio-cultural representation."
Both Telemundo and Univision hope to ride the trend toward Spanish-language television programming among Spanish-speakers. Ten years ago, Spanish-speakers split their television time 60-40, watching more English television than Spanish, according to Nielsen. Those numbers hit 50-50 in 2003. Now, Spanish-speakers spend 56 percent of their viewing time with Spanish-language shows and 44 percent with English-language programs, the research shows.
"The thing I cannot tolerate, and it's happened to us in the past, we've put on a telenovela that creatively is great but you do your research and viewers say it's so difficult to understand because they're speaking so fast, or that the accent is off-putting," McNamara said.
At a recent NBC party in Los Angeles, McNamara was explaining the accent-coaching when he called over Jorge Enrique Abello, star of the network's upcoming telenovela, "Anita: No Te Rajes!" (Translated, "Anita: Don't Crack!")
In Spanish, McNamara told Abello that he was discussing diccion.
"Ah," the actor replied, in lightly accented English, "my diction is perfect!"