El Donahue

Forget Jerry and Phil. When it comes to Spanish TV, Miami's own Pedro Sevcec is the tiger of talk.

The shows are taped twice daily Tuesday through Thursday, and an audience can spend as much as six hours in the studio. Sometimes the same audience will attend as many as four shows a week. Audience brokering is common, and, in fact, Sevcec's main competition, Cristina -- which shares the same time slot on rival Univisión -- uses identical brokers. The result: The same cheers and faces of several hundred old ladies from Miami Beach are daily beamed across the planet. "I like the Sevcec show better than Cristina because it's shorter," confides one septuagenarian. "At least here they give us dinner between the shows. With Cristina, you don't get anything, and sometimes they keep us there for eight hours at a time!"

That's not the only difference between the two shows. Ask Amada Rodriguez, a 73-year-old Cuban American from Miami Beach who can't even remember how many times she has been in the audience of Sevcec, which she occasionally also watches at home. Rodriguez likes the excitement of live, on-stage conflict, which means she prefers the more racy Cristina. Her show often includes a good tussle or confessions of bizarre sexual proclivities. Sevcec, who says he has never been comfortable with these extremes, is criticized by some viewers as "Cristina Lite."

"What's off-limits are the gross-type shows," says Sevcec executive producer Marisara Martin. "It does good things for the ratings, but Pedro will never allow it."

The audience knows what it wants from Pedro, and if he did anything else they'd be disappointed, she adds. "The thing people like about Pedro is his good humor, his laughter. 'He seems like a nice guy,' they say."

But nice guys often finish last. Cuban-American Cristina Saralegui has had her show for nine years, garnering top ratings for Univisión and consistently beating Sevcec -- a fact that grates with him. "I don't like to be second, even less so when there are only two people. That's not second, that's last," he says. He hopes that plans by Sony to move him to an earlier time slot where he's not up against Cristina will change his ratings. From April 27 to May 22, an average of around 928,000 American households watched Cristina each afternoon while only about 325,000 homes tuned in to Sevcec.

"They have me steamrollered," Sevcec admits. Yet his show was Telemundo's most popular for the first three weeks of June. And that alone, he believes, vindicates his more civil, therapeutic approach. Still, the game rules are simple, Sevcec explains. If you take a poll and ask people what they consider important issues, they'll always pick something like education, immigration, and public safety. But if you put the education show opposite a show on transvestites, the transvestites will win the higher ratings every time.

"It's very painful," he concludes forlornly.
The dramatic pain that people want to see is on display today. Sevcec hits all the right notes. He elicits gasps from the audience when he nudges the teenage delinquents into confessing a litany of crimes: robbery, battery, gunplay.

"With your hand on your heart," he asks Playboy, using one of his stock phrases, "can you leave the gang?" By the end of the show, his strategy is clear. He is using the boys' lifestyles as object lessons. He will frighten the eleven-year-old so much that she can't possibly idealize the boys. And in fact, this is why her father has brought her. "I saw the phone number and called," he says after the show. "We were desperate, and I thought it would help."

Sevcec brings out the mother of a gang member and pleads with her to offer counsel to the girl. Instead she breaks into sobs, and the host holds out a tissue. The visiting therapist praises the father's tough-love stance and advises him to send his daughter to a shelter if the behavior gets too bad. And the piece de resistance: A community activist and former gang member speaks emotionally on the rewards of turning one's life around.

By the end of the show, gang member Buddha has expressed concern for his own out-of-wedlock children. The eleven-year-old has admitted that she just wants love and attention. The audience claps enthusiastically, even though, for most, this is not their first Sevcec. Maybe not even their first gang show. Producers estimate that in the past four years, there have been about twenty gang shows with titles such as "Romeo and Juliet in a Gang" and "Gangs Against Gangs."

Out in the corridor after the taping, Lupe Casares, the former gang member, is not entirely comfortable with what he's done. Casares, who has been on the show before, came this time to pitch a documentary he has made. But he has qualms about turning the thorny reality of gangs into entertainment. "You can't solve these kinds of issues here," he says. "They pretend to do it, and that's what I can't stand. It took years for the daughter to become like that. And then they have the expert quote from the textbook, even though everyone is different. It's superficial. They push for an instant solution, but it takes years. They're not going to get it in a 45-minute program." Ten feet away, the eleven-year-old girl flirts with gang member Gilbert.

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