Univision

The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about—serialized dramas and single-camera comedies—are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff watches Univision.

Hey, what’s the number four network in America many weeks?

CBS and Fox are givens. They’ve traded off the overall crown for quite a few years now. And ABC’s after them, just barely hanging on, thanks to Modern Family and Dancing With The Stars. But behind them? It’s not NBC, and it’s not The CW, and this isn’t a joke about how weak those networks are. It’s a story about how strong Univision, the nation’s number four network, is. Because make no mistake: Univision will probably overtake ABC for the number three spot sometime in the next couple of years, and there’s no reason it can’t rise to the number two or even—give or take a CBS or an American Idol—number one overall. It’s a network that’s grown tremendously in the last 10 years, but it’s a story virtually no one ever talks about, outside of a few articles here and there that mostly report the network’s surge as a curiosity. In fact, there have been weeks this summer when the network has been number one in several of the key demographics advertisers most care about, like the 18-34-year-old bracket. And it shows no signs of slowing down. This is, honestly, one of the most important TV stories of the last decade, and no one’s paying much attention.

Now, there are a lot of caveats to this number. Univision gets a lot of mileage out of airing original programming in the summer, when many of the other networks roll over and play dead. And it also gets mileage from airing some of its bigger shows on nights when the other networks don’t really have anything to put on the air, nights like Friday and Saturday. And there’s also the usual cautionary tale about how while Spanish-speaking audiences that watch Univision might seek out, say, Fox to watch the Super Bowl, it’s highly unlikely English-speaking audiences are going to seek out Univision to watch things. So there’s an upper limit on Univision’s growth that the other networks don’t theoretically have. (That said, you can argue the flipside of this, too: The number of networks competing for Univision’s audience is much smaller than the number of networks competing for Fox’s audience, and Univision’s audience keeps growing.)

The biggest caveat of all, of course, is that any time a large immigrant population moves to the United States, media designed to appeal to that population spring up. German-language newspapers were popular in the United States of the mid-1800s, and you can find numerous examples of radio stations designed to appeal to immigrants as well. (The argument made that Spanish speakers need to learn English and assimilate just like everybody in the 1800s ignores that most of those populations created alternate worlds within the larger American culture before their kids assimilated into the broader cultural picture, just as many Spanish-speaking families are doing today.) As more and more people move into the United States from Mexico, Central America, and South America, more and more networks and programming divisions are going to try to figure out how to monetize that audience.

Univision’s a bit of an odd duck as a network. Many of its operations are based out of Miami, of all places, and while it has a healthy presence in the other cities where TV is usually based and shot, Miami continues to be where most of its most popular programs are produced. And while the network puts on many of its own shows, it also imports plenty of shows from other countries, including many of the most popular Mexican telenovelas. The network’s had great success with things like soccer games, of course, but it’s also proved that there’s an audience for American-produced, Spanish language versions of programs that are already popular on the big networks, like Mira Quien Baila, a rough Dancing With The Stars clone that will feature Erik Estrada (and a Mexican wrestler named Blue Demon, Jr.!) this season. Where other channels aiming at niche audiences have turned to cable, Univision has built its brand the old-fashioned way, via local affiliates airing its programming (and whatever syndicated stuff they choose to buy). The network’s chief competition comes from NBC-Universal owned Telemundo, but Univision handily defeats that network almost every week.

My Univision affiliate, KMEX, airs on channel 34 throughout the Los Angeles area. On most weeks, it’s not just the most-watched KMEX affiliate; it’s the most-watched local station in the country. Furthermore, its local newscast is the most watched local newscast in the country. These are the sorts of things that aren’t supposed to happen. Local stations and local newscasts, like local newspapers, are supposed to be barely scraping by, just managing to hold on to their position in the local culture before they inevitably succumb to the fragmentation of the audience. Univision—and more specifically, KMEX—has discovered that while the rest of the audience is ever-fragmenting, there’s a Spanish-language audience that grows ever more cohesive and longs for a broadcast community to call its own.

But, as mentioned, virtually no one pays much attention to the network, probably because most media in the United States is English language and, therefore, primarily concerned with English-language stuff. But it does seem a little odd that when shows like Teresa or Fuerza Del Destino regularly top niche cable or broadcast shows that make lots and lots of magazine covers, there are surprisingly few articles about the rise of Univision, even as that curiosity. (Univision has no shows that would make the broadcast top 10, but it has a few that would sit pretty comfortably in the top 50, and the number increases the more you pare the demographic down to 18-49 or 18-34. And the number gets larger and larger every year.) Again, it makes sense why this is the case, but it still ignores a pretty fascinating story.

In watching roughly half a day of Univision programming, I learned a few things. Firstly, I was reminded that Spanish speakers speak much more rapidly when they’re not trying to communicate with dumb-ass white guys. (My Spanish is good enough that I understood what was happening in all of the programs I watched, but I know I missed some of the nuance, and I’m certain many of the jokes flew right over my head.) Secondly, I realized that Univision is a network with a bit of a cultural identity crisis at its core. The (mostly) Mexican-produced series that are among the network’s most popular don’t feel like anything on American TV, not even our half-assed attempts to copy the format with shows like Ugly Betty. They’re at once much, much campier and much, much more earnest, with some moments that genuinely push for dark thrills. They’re often wildly entertaining, veering from utterly ludicrous plot twists to odd relationship scenes. At the same time, the network’s originally produced programming is much closer to Spanish-language versions of American shows. There are differences here and there—I can’t think of an American talk show that underlines the big emotional moments with a cloying score as one talk show I watched today did—but for the most part, these are straightforward versions of the shows you already know, just in Spanish. The newscast is just a newscast. The talk show is a talk show. Even the Univision-produced telenovelas feel less insane than their Mexican counterparts.

The one show where all of this collides was my favorite program of the day. Entitled El Gordo Y La Flaca (which more or less translates to The Fat Man And The Skinny Woman), the show is one part Entertainment Tonight-style “news” and gossip program, one part sketch comedy show, and one part singing-and-dancing variety hour. It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen on TV, and I kind of loved every second of it. Very much a company show, today’s two hours (split across two time periods) were very much interested in introducing the latest cast of Mira Quien Baila, including both hosts’ breathless excitement over having Estrada in the house. There was lots of talk about Marc Anthony (who gave an interview in which he called Jennifer Lopez a wonderful mother) and Enrique Iglesias (though I have less of an idea of why this was so intriguing to all involved). There was a random segment where a reporter met and interviewed a bunch of musicians in a restaurant, an interview that abruptly shifted into strange comedy when the restaurant’s owner came out to yell at the musicians and put them to work. Every time I thought I had the slightest clue what was going to happen next, the program would veer in another direction entirely. There’s no way John Tesh or Mary Hart would do any of this.

For as much as Gordo is a company arm, mostly existing to promote other Univision product, it’s weirdly irresistible, thanks to its hosts, who are, of course, a fat man and a skinny woman. “El Gordo” is Raul De Molina, and if he’s not the centerpiece star of Univision, he probably should be. He’s a warm, witty dude with an awesome mustache, and the afternoon edition of the show opened with footage of him dancing on the Baila set, looking weirdly awkward but seeming to enjoy himself. De Molina’s got a natural charisma, but he never overwhelms his guests, nor his co-host, the slightly spacy (in a fun way) Lili Estefan (some relation to the Estefan you’re thinking of). He’s just a fun host, and he’s all the more fun because he’s like no other host on TV. Maybe after weeks of watching this show, I’d get sick of the hosts’ banter, but I don’t know that I would. It’s a very silly, very fluffy program, but it’s also a lot of fun, and it has the added benefit of not taking itself too seriously. It’s a lot easier to take a program centered on celebrity gossip when you’re never quite sure if it will come back from commercial with a broad comedy bit or a brief musical number.

I can’t say that watching a half-day of Univision gave me any great insight into what it’s doing to improve its ratings or what it’s done to become as popular as it is (beyond being a very slickly produced network that blends the comforts of the programming of a homeland with the aspirational values of the new country you’ve moved to). I also can’t say that it gave me a greater impression of telenovelas, since after watching a whole bunch of them in a row, I was fairly exhausted by the plot twists and quivering lips and random screaming fits. (On the other hand, watching all of them made me realize just how much we still tell stories via visual iconography that’s years out of date. Zacatillo let us know one character was an artist by putting him in a beret and smock, something that’s been cliché for years and years now, but something that wouldn’t be out of place on an American soap.) But at the same time, it was a valuable glimpse into another television world, one that is just like ours in many ways but also features a joyfully dancing fat guy who’s always ready with a wisecrack or a bit of physical goofiness. Univision’s greatest challenge is deciding whether to be a Spanish-language version of American TV or chart its own course based on the Spanish-language imports that have been its bread and butter for so long. Something like Gordo suggests that both could be the case.

Stray observation:

  • There was no good way to work this into the article proper, but I was most impressed by both the commercials—one of which featured a singing, animated dinosaur—and what they were advertising. If you’re wondering where all of the K-Mart ads have gone, the chain is absolutely saturating Univision, and if you’re wondering where bottled water gets advertised heavily, well, look no further. There’s also a movie about a Mexican dude going to Iraq called Saving Private Perez that looks like the greatest movie in history. (I am only mildly joking about this. It looks pretty badass.)