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Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Feb 17 14:04:21 UTC 2005

>>From the Miama Herald

Posted on Wed, Feb. 16, 2005

Telemundo Coaches 'Neutral' Spanish Accent


Associated Press

NEW YORK - Soap opera fans swoon over Michel Brown's blue eyes and
teen-idol looks, but executives at the Telemundo network say there is a
more subtle aspect to the telenovela star's appeal: his unaccented
Spanish. Brown's delivery, carefully coached to conceal his singsong
cadence as a native Argentine, is part of a new policy at the
Spanish-language network aimed at increasing viewership in the lucrative
Hispanic American market, where there as many accents as there are
Spanish-speaking countries.

"I had to learn to shorten my vowels and keep my voice from going up and
down," Brown said in an interview from Colombia, where the telenovela "Te
Voy a Ensenar a Querer," or "Learning to Love," is filmed. "They wanted a
universal, completely plain Spanish." The neutral Spanish has no
real-world equivalent, though observers say it resembles a combination of
highbrow accents from Mexico and Cuba, two countries with large immigrant
populations in the United States. The lead dialogue coach at the NBC-owned
network, actress Adriana Barraza, is a native of Mexico.

Miami-based Telemundo officials attribute the policy, instituted 18 months
ago, to some recent success in catching up to Univision Communications
Inc., which has long-dominated U.S. Spanish-language television by
importing content from Mexican colossus Televisa and other foreign
networks. Telemundo, which once dubbed novelas from Brazil into Spanish,
now produces many of its programs with "aspirational" themes aimed at the
40 million people in the U.S. Hispanic market, coveted by advertisers as
the world's wealthiest Spanish speakers.

"We're trying to be television neutral - I am fanatical about it
personally," said Telemundo President James McNamara, who likened the
campaign to making it easier for an American to watch a movie from
Scotland. "I want to make sure that when we put effort into our
production, we don't create obstacles." One viewer, Luis Pichardo, said he
and his family prefer Telemundo, even though some of its programs lack
big-budget polish. While neither network offers the lilting tones of his
native Dominican Republic, he said the Mexican accents on Univision can
become tiresome.

"When it's all Mexican, I don't like it, and my kids don't always
understand it," said Pichardo, 35, a clothing store owner in New York. The
emergence of neutral Spanish on U.S. airwaves suggests to some a moment of
arrival for U.S. Hispanics - the rise of a national ethnic identity no
longer tied to individual countries of origin. "It is a widespread trend
that is quite significant because it says much about how Latinos in the
U.S. are consolidating their own identity," said Ilan Stavans, a professor
of Spanish at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  "Television is a
lightning rod for other aspects of the pan-Latino individual."

The universal Spanish, which dilutes recognizable elements of national
accents, also involves sacrifices. Words that vary in meaning from one
region to another are often dropped and some actors even have to change
their sentence structure - no small imposition for actors who might see
their country's Spanish as the purest form. But Brown, for one, said he
doesn't take it personally. "The culture and language, every actor has
that. It's something you carry inside," he said. The rewards, he added,
are worth the effort.

"You can have a Cuban actor and an Argentine playing brothers, set in any
location. It lets you pull off something marvelous." According to
telenovela scholar Tomas Lopez-Pumarejo, the network's policy reflects a
standardization that emerged over the last 15 years at journalism and
communication schools, particularly in Puerto Rico and Mexico.

"There is more or less a coherent way of speaking Spanish, a consensus on
a way people should talk," said Lopez-Pumarejo, a professor at Brooklyn
College. Many cultural critics, however, argue that more is lost than
gained by the neutral Spanish. Some say it threatens cultural diversity by
reducing the array of Spanish voices on the air.

Most Telemundo and Univision programs are made abroad with Latin American
actors, and New York University professor Arlene Davila said the neutral
accent represents a "reverse cultural imperialism" by upholding a
linguistic ideal from outside the United States, while making no effort to
capture the way the language is spoken inside the country. "U.S. Hispanics
are a second-tier audience twice over, both among the major U.S. networks
and the Spanish networks, which go back to Latin America," said Davila,
author of the book "Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People."

Others, however, say a baseline Spanish is thoroughly American. Jorge
Ramos, a news anchor for Univision, said he learned early in his U.S.
career to neutralize his Mexican accent so he could appeal to an audience
of immigrants from different regions. But Ramos - perhaps the best-known
Spanish-language journalist in the country - said no amount of practice
will ever fully conceal his origins.

"As hard as I try," he said, "there is always a sentence, a word, that
would immediately let them know I'm Mexican."

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