Washington Post article on Telemundo
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Aug 5 14:17:58 UTC 2004
Accent on Higher TV Ratings
Spanish-Language Network Telemundo Coaches Actors to Use Mexican Dialect
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2004; Page A01
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
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,"
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
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 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:
In Spanish, McNamara told Abello that he was discussing diccion.
"Ah," the actor replied, in lightly accented English, "my diction is
2004 The Washington Post Company
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