Spanish-language TV reality shows

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Sep 8 17:29:02 UTC 2003

>>From the New York Times,

September 8, 2003

Latino TV Embraces Reality Shows


   LOS ANGELES Sweet and stunningly beautiful in her designer gowns,
Minerva Ruvalcaba shows up on the premiere of Telemundo's reality show "La
Cenicienta" ("Cinderella")  Monday night with her family, two best
friends, a priest and an astrologer, all to help her choose Prince
Charming. But more significant, Ms. Ruvalcaba, 24, shows up with a past.
She is twice divorced and the mother of a 2- 1/2-year-old girl, which is
kept secret until she has whittled down 20 contestants to a few finalists
and her suitors have fallen for her.

Among many Hispanics, "that's the scarlet letter if you have a kid you're
used merchandise," said Nely Galan, a producer of the show. "I want to
change the way men see single mothers." In Spanish-language television
even a genre known for mindless entertainment, like reality shows, can be
transformed into a weighty one-woman morality play.

Cinderella as a marked woman is a twist influenced by the high art of the
telenovela, the soap operas that dominate prime time in Spanish-language
television. The premise that single motherhood undermines Cinderella's
desirability may be a bit politically incorrect, but it works similarly to
a telenovela cliffhanger as audiences wonder not just who the lucky man
will be, but whether that winner wants his prize. This takeoff of ABC's
"Bachelorette" will be broadcast five nights a week in prime time.
Officials at Telemundo, the NBC subsidiary that runs a distant second to
Univision in the Hispanic market in the United States, say they hope to
rake in telenovela-high ratings.

The show represents some of the cultural differences that reality
television must adjust to for the Hispanic market. Telemundo, which has
led in reality programming and produces its own shows, has had to tread
carefully as it serves up reality fare to a palate that is not only
different but also tends to be more socially conservative. Its version of
Fox's "Temptation Island," for instance, drew complaints from viewers for
its strong sexual content and its goal of tempting couples into cheating
on their partners, said Mimi Belt, Telemundo's vice president for program
development. And the "American Idol"-inspired "Protagonistas de la
Musica," ("Protagonists of the Music"), whose winner was a Dominican
livery cabdriver from the Bronx, did not have nasty commentary. Network
officials said an audience mostly made up of immigrants trying to make it
in the United States would not stand for judges humiliating contestants as
Simon Cowell did on Fox's "Idol."

"What we've learned is that we've had tremendous positive reaction to the
aspirational aspects of these shows," Ms. Belt said. "Disrespect,
viciousness, sarcastic humor don't work for us. If conflict is out of
hand, we may edit it out of the show." Liz Castells-Heard, president of
Castells & Asociados, a large Hispanic advertising agency in Los Angeles,
said that such preferences were also evident in the reality shows that
English-speaking and bilingual Latinos watch in English. Dating shows like
"The Bachelor" have done better than those with mean-spirited contestants
like "Survivor," she said.

The Hispanic reality shows have garnered good ratings for Telemundo,
occasionally beating the competition in some markets. Telemundo officials
said that "Protagonistas de la Musica,"  for example, drew 1.5 million
viewers for its finale earlier this year and outperformed shows at the
same time slot on Univision and English-language networks among Hispanic
viewers in markets like New York. Some in the advertising industry note
that reality shows have been among the few bright spots in Telemundo's
overall ratings, which have not improved significantly since the network
was bought by NBC last year. Univision captures more than 70 percent of
the Spanish-speaking audience during prime time. Nielsen Media Research
says there are nearly 10 million households in the country where viewers
watch in Spanish.

"La Cenicienta" is being closed-captioned in English and advertisements
for it have been running on NBC to target bilingual Latinos. Telemundo's
first foray into reality television was in early 2002 with "Protagonistas
de Novela" ("Protagonists of Soap Opera"), in which 12 contestants vied
for a spot in that network's next telenovela. Telemundo is working on
"Protagonistas de la Fama" ("Protagonists of Fame"), a spinoff for next
year that will involve the search for multifaceted performers who can
dance, sing, act and do comedy.

Univision, meanwhile, is testing the waters with "La Pesera del Amor"
("The Love Bus"), an import from Mexico similar to ABC's "Bachelor" but
featuring older contestants. It began broadcasting on Sunday nights on
Aug. 24. Univision officials refused requests for an interview, but some
people in the advertising industry noted that Univision had not jumped on
the reality bandwagon in part because it was succeeding with its current
programming, most of which comes from Latin America.

Some advertisers also said that Univision has run shows with plenty of
contests and other reality elements. "Univision has a formula that has
worked beautifully for them," said Aida Levitan, president of the
Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies and chairwoman of Publicis
Sanchez & Levitan in Miami.

With "Cenicienta" Telemundo officials initially worried that their leading
lady was too unlike Cinderella for their audience. But Ms. Galan, the
producer, who is a former president of entertainment for the network and
runs her own production company, said she persuaded them that the
Cinderella ideal needed updating. Speaking at the offices of Galan
Entertainment in Venice, Calif., Ms. Galan said that many Latinas in the
United States were single mothers; 28 percent of all Hispanic families
with children in the United States are headed by a single mother, census
figures show. Yet, she said, many Latino men still want to marry a virgin,
and many families and many of the women themselves find single motherhood

Carmen Inoa Vazquez, a clinical psychologist in New York, said that though
there was less shame today than there used to be, especially among
American-born Latinos, "it's still very difficult for a society with a
strong traditionalist component to accept single motherhood." Ms. Vazquez
is the co-author of "The Maria Paradox: How Latinas Can Merge Old World
Traditions with New World Self-Esteem" (Putnam, 1996). "You're supposed to
have one man, and for the rest of your life," she said.

Ms. Galan knows. She has a 3-year-old son, born out of wedlock to her and
the comedian Paul Rodriguez, and the experience has given her a sobering
insight into her culture. "It's been a great source of shame for me," said
Ms. Galan, 39, a Cuban-American. "In the American world I'm cool. In the
Latino world it's not easy being Madonna." Ms. Ruvalcaba is a Texas-born
Mexican-American and the only daughter among the five children of Minerva
and Leandro Ruvalcaba, a housewife and businessman from Houston who now
live in Mexico. The younger Ms. Ruvalcaba lives with her daughter,
Vanessa, and is a box-office manager at a Latin-music nightclub in Los

Ms. Galan said that with "La Cenicienta" she also set out to confront the
audience with prejudices dealing with race, religion, class and
nationality. Set in a mansion in Palm Springs, Calif., the series lays
bare common stereotypes when members of Ms. Ruvalcaba's Mexican-American
family question men from a pool that includes a black Cuban-American, a
Jewish Mexican and others from various nationalities and socioeconomic
backgrounds. The family gets to eliminate the first eight contestants.
"How are you doing with vices, because Spanish men have a very bad
reputation," the mother asks a suitor from Spain. "They like to drink and
smoke too much." At another point she tells the black contestant: "You are
a very good person despite your color. We're all God's children." Ms.
Ruvalcaba said she was comfortable with being on the show because the men
had undergone background checks. She admitted that her judgment in picking
husbands has been abysmal "I think everything that shines is gold"  and
said she welcomed the meddling of others in choosing her next romance,
including the intervention of a metaphorical fairy godmother, played by
Eva Tamargo Lemus of NBC's daytime soap "Passions."

Ms. Galan said that she added touches like the godmother and the priest as
cultural references. Some features, like having the family screen the
suitors, may ring more true to the audience than others, like seeking
advice from an astrologer. Ms. Ruvalcaba cannot have contact with her
selected beau until the grand finale at the end of October. (The show is
being broadcast at 7 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times, 6 p.m.  Central

Already she has an agent and is fielding film and television auditions.
She would like to open a boutique to sell her clothing designs. But most
of all, she said, she hopes to find true love.  "I feel ready to fall in
love," she said. "I'm looking for a man who values me, who supports me and
who loves Vanessa."

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