Cutting Cane

A week before last Christmas, CBS’s drama Cane ended its first season with its main character Alex Vega, portrayed by Jimmy Smits, resigning as CEO of his family’s rum-and-sugar company under the cloud of a murder investigation. The following day, speculation about the show’s whodunit cliffhanger was outstripped by rumors that the one-hour drama was going to be cancelled. Indeed, bogged down by the show’s falling ratings, CBS did not order additional episodes of the star-studded, aggressively-promoted drama.

The cutting of Cane was a major blow to an industry that is not only eagerly trying to reach Latino viewers, but considers them essential to its ongoing survival. If that seems like an exaggeration, consider the following: Latinos make up 15% of the U.S. population, a figure that is expected to grow to 24% by the year 2050. Latinos—as well as Asians— spend proportionately more money than the rest of the population. Most significantly, one in five Latinos is under the age of eleven, and that translates into lots of kids and teens—exactly the audience that television advertisers covet.

So why is television having so much trouble reaching us? Why can’t studios develop Latino-themed shows that mirror the success of programming that targets African Americans? The main reason, say the experts, is our intrinsic diversity. “If you open an African American film in 2000 theaters you’re guaranteed 25 million in sales, but we’re not a homogenous group that supports our product,” says Frank Estrada, president of Estrada Media Group and former executive director for technical services at Paramount Pictures. During his twenty-plus year career in the industry, Estrada constantly found himself trying to explain the matter to studio executives looking to come up with a “Latino profile” for television watching. “Cubans are different than Mexicans, who are different than Puerto Ricans, and they don’t watch each other’s shows, and even portraying each other onscreen becomes a problem. How is an Anglo studio executive supposed to figure that out?”

Up until recently, Hollywood didn’t even try. Instead, studios opted for the stereotype, portraying Latinos only as drug lords, maids, and gangbangers. But now that the population numbers have studios and producers scrambling for market share you start to see Latinos of all upstanding stripes appearing in ensemble shows—Roselyn Sanchez as a Puerto Rican FBI Agent on Without a Trace, Danny Pino as a Cuban homicide detective on Cold Case, Sara Ramirez as a Mexican American orthopedic surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy, and Eva Longoria as everyone’s favorite desperate housewife. Insiders also credit Latino studio executives, like CBS television president Nina Tassler for this trend. “You can’t wake up in the morning and order up a Latino show, but you can be more excited to go in and pitch to people who have similar backgrounds,” says Peter Murietta, creator of Greetings from Tucson, a series about a Mexican Irish family in Arizona that ran to critical acclaim from 2002-2003 on the WB network. When Murietta was asked by the Disney Channel to produce a show about a family whose children are wizards-in-training, he did not hesitate to ask the network to cast Miami-born Cuban Maria Canals as the mother. “The secret to any success in this business…. is when people on both sides of the table have similar backgrounds,” Murietta says of the Latino executive who green lighted his blended-family concept for Wizards.

Yet, despite the increase in Latino executives at the studios, Latino-themed programming with Latino leads has been slow to come. Presently, in addition to the ailing Cane, the only other Latino-themed show on television is Ugly Betty, an ABC workplace dramedy adapted from a wildly successful Spanish language series. Recently picked up for a third season, Ugly Betty constitutes only the fourth time that a Latino-themed show has lasted more than one season on prime time. That’s right—in the entire sixty year history of television only three other shows with Latino leads and story lines have made it to a second season—I Love Lucy in the 1950s, Chico and the Man in the 1970s, and The George Lopez Show in early 2000s. Experts cite poor ratings, such as Cane’s, as their excuse for lack of programming. But the reality is that most Hollywood executives don’t have a clue what Latinos care about and what they will watch week after week.

Admittedly the subject is complex. “There’s a language issue, a generational issue, and the overall immigrant desire to become American, which means that the [kids] will watch regular TV and go to regular event films,” explained Lynnette Ramirez, senior vice president of development and production at George Lopez Presents, a company set up by Lopez at Warner Brothers after his show was cancelled in 2007. Estrada echoes the sentiment, but he also believes that one could reach a major portion of the Latino audience with family oriented shows, like George Lopez, as well as “love stories, stories about religion, and of enjoyment in general.” At present, producers are rushing to fill this order. Lopez is developing an animated Charlie Brown-style Christmas movie with a “little brown boy” in the lead, and several direct-to-video films featuring his feel-good Cosby-style Latino dad formula.

Former Telemundo president and Latino television pioneer Nely Galán is in the mix with Alicia Valdes Rodriguez’s bestselling chick-lit novel The Dirty Girl’s Social Club which she is trying to turn into both a feature film and television series. It’s a bit of a free-for-all, with everyone knowing there’s money to be made, but no one quite sure what bait will attract the viewer. Galán, who is now appearing opposite Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice and whose other series include the reality megahit The Swan, recommends finding a niche audience—in her case women—and approaching that market with “a business model that will show the networks that what you are proposing will sell to that particular audience.” Estrada’s model consists of targeting the mammoth Latino youth audience through programming designed for cellphones, the Internet, and other forms of new media. Both approaches make sense, and both seem in clear opposition to both Cane and Ugly Betty which seemed to be playing to a general market and whose audience have to date consisted of less than 10% Latino viewers.

Whatever the model, one thing is for sure— the television industry has finally figured out that in order to expand they need to reach Latino audiences. And that’s good news for us.

By Rosa Lowinger