Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara in ABC’s highly rated “Modern Family.” Ms. Vergara plays Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, a sexy Latina trophy wife.
By TANZINA VEGA and BILL CARTER
Published: August 2012
Sofia Vergara is probably the most recognizable Hispanic actress working in English-language television. She is one of the stars of “Modern Family,” among the highest-rated scripted shows on network television, and she has parlayed her celebrity into commercials for brands like Pepsi and Cover Girl.
Despite her popularity, “Modern Family” is not a hit with Hispanic viewers. Out of its overall viewership of 12.9 million, “Modern Family” drew an average of only about 798,000 Hispanic viewers in the season. That audience accounts for only about 6 percent of the show’s viewers — less than half of what you might expect given the 48 million Hispanic television viewers that Nielsen measures.
The same pattern can be seen on other top network shows: “Two and a Half Men” on CBS averaged 611,000 Hispanic viewers out of an average total of 14.6 million viewers. “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC averaged 583,000 out of 10.9 million. “Glee” on Fox averaged 518,000 out of 8.7 million. And “NCIS” on CBS averaged 509,000 out of 19.1 million.
The numbers encapsulate the problem facing English-language television executives and advertisers: they desperately want to appeal to the more than 50 million Latinos in the United States (about three-quarters speak Spanish), especially those who are young, bilingual and bicultural, but those viewers seem to want very little to do with American English-language television.
They do, however, continue to watch Spanish-language networks in huge numbers. In May, on the final night of the most recent season of “Modern Family,” far more Hispanic viewers were watching the top Spanish language show that week, the telenovela “La Que No Podía Amar,” on Univision, which attracted 5.2 million viewers.
“We’re part of the fastest-growing demographic in the country,” said Randy Falco, the president and chief of Univision. The company recently entered into a partnership with ABC News, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, to create a 24-hour news channel to serve Hispanic viewers.
At this spring’s upfronts, the meetings hosted by network executives to sell advertising airtime, there were nine presentations to advertisers by broadcast and cable channels including ESPN and Discovery aimed at creating content for Hispanic viewers. In 2011, there were only five such presentations.
The list of top English-language shows watched by Hispanics is headed by the same competition shows as among the total audience, with “Dancing With the Stars,” and “American Idol” faring best this spring, while “Sunday Night Football” was the leader in the fall.
But the discrepancy between English and Spanish language shows is most acute among shows that are scripted in English. The issue, many viewers and critics argue, is that there still hasn’t been the Hispanic equivalent of “The Cosby Show,” meaning a show that deals with Latino culture in a way that doesn’t offend viewers with crude stereotypes.
This winter, CBS hoped to have a cross-cultural hit with the show “Rob” featuring the comedian Rob Schneider. The show, based loosely on Mr. Schneider’s own life, showed his experiences of marrying into a Mexican family and the culture clashes that ensued. But the chief conflict ended up being between the show and its intended viewers.
“Big family,” said Mr. Schneider’s character, when he meets his wife’s family for the first time. “Now I know what’s going on during all those siestas.” In another scene, the character Hector, played by Eugenio Derbez, tells Rob that he is visiting from Mexico. Then he gets closer to Rob and whispers, “I’m not leaving,” and after pausing for effect adds, “Ever.”
For Joe Zubizarreta, the co-owner and chief operating officer of the advertising agency Zubi Advertising, with headquarters in Miami, the comedic devices used in “Rob” were too much. “They’ve used just about every stereotype they could in the pilot,” Mr. Zubizarreta said. “I understand that the general market taste will find humor in the idiosyncrasies of Hispanics. But as Hispanics, when we watch general market television, we’d like to see some semblance of reality to our lives.”
For Julio Ricardo Varela, the founder of the Web site Latino Rebels, both the content of “Rob” and how it was marketed relied too much on stereotypes.
“ ‘Rob’ was a big running joke among our community,” Mr. Varela said. “It just felt lazy, stale and I think that mainstream television is missing the boat.” Mr. Varela noted a contest on the show’s Facebook page where viewers were invited to hit a virtual piñata to “whack and win” a trip to the show’s set. Also on the page were promotional images of Mr. Schneider and the rest of the cast in a conga line. “I thought the marketing was beyond ridiculous,” Mr. Varela said.
Nina Tassler, the president for entertainment for CBS, declined to comment on “Rob” specifically, but said that reaching out to the Hispanic community was important for the network. (The network declined to pick up “Rob” for a second season.)
“Everybody’s culture is wholly unique, so finding the storytelling language that can reach out and communicate with the biggest cross section of the Latin population is obviously what we are trying for,” said Ms. Tassler, who is the highest-ranking network television executive with a Hispanic heritage. Mr. Schneider declined to comment for this article.
Among the series that were in development for next season by English-language networks, one, an ABC show called “Devious Maids,” gained attention for its focus on a Latino stereotype — maids working in Beverly Hills. The show was being produced by Marc Cherry of “Desperate Housewives,” and had been based on a Spanish-language telenovela.
When Liz Colunga, a 31-year-old Mexican-American documentary filmmaker heard about “Devious Maids” she wasn’t surprised at the show’s theme. “I’m used to watching stereotypical roles for Latinas and Latinos,” Ms. Colunga said.
Neither “Devious Maids” nor another Latino-tinged pilot called “El Jefe” about a Hispanic family in Los Angeles that included a maid and a landscaper were picked up by the networks. (“Devious Maids” did win a spot on the cable network Lifetime.) But no new Hispanic-centric shows made it onto any major networks’ fall prime-time schedules.
ABC had minor hits several years ago with two of the more respected shows among Latino audiences, the comedy “The George Lopez Show,” which is regarded as the closest thing to a “Cosby Show” by many Hispanics, and the comedy-drama “Ugly Betty.”
But the network suffered a setback in January after a character on the show “Work It” said he would be great at selling drugs because he was Puerto Rican. The show was canceled after just two episodes because of lackluster ratings, but it also sparked weekly protests in front of the network’s Manhattan headquarters.
Paul Lee, the president of the ABC Entertainment Group, said in an e-mail that ABC was “committed to diversity on our network because it’s critical to creating relevant stories that resonate in today’s America.”
No character stirs more mixed emotions for Hispanic audiences that the one played by Ms. Vergara on “Modern Family.” She plays Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, a sexy Latina trophy wife whose persona has gotten mixed reviews from Latinos.
“It’s working for her, but at what expense?” said Ms. Colunga, the filmmaker. “She’s playing the clueless Latina.”
In a show where all of the characters are a bit extreme, the least stereotypical of all is Gloria’s smart-talking son Manny. Lynnette Ramirez, the senior vice president for development and production at Encanto Enterprises, a production company owned by George and Ann Lopez, said Gloria’s character works because she is tempered by her son.
“Sofia’s character is a first generation Latina,” Ms. Ramirez said. “Manny’s going to grow up to be like Sara Ramirez’s character in ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ” she added, a reference to the actress Sara Ramirez’s role as a doctor on the show.
The Fox network’s parent company, News Corporation, signals one direction that broadcast companies may be headed in their attempts to reach Hispanic viewers. In an effort to share in the $3.6 billion in advertising revenue directed at the Hispanic market, News Corporation announced it would start a new channel, MundoFOX. The programming will be in Spanish.