Father Albert's Pulpit Show

He's got looks, charm, and the church on his side. But even this priest may not save Telemundo's ratings.

Outside the Grand Ballroom on the second floor of the Intercontinental-Miami Hotel, crystal chandeliers perched high above the hallway illuminate the Spanish-language television network Telemundo's cocktail reception. Several hundred guests talk shop while nibbling hors d'oeuvres served on silver platters; conversations center on marketing and television. Most of the crowd easily slides between English and Spanish, often in the same sentence. Cell phones and pagers seem obligatory. A mobile bar off to the side of the room provides a steady stream of alcohol.

Up the circular staircase leading to the hall climbs a young Catholic priest. His black suit with clerical front and white collar seem oddly out of place among the sport coats and cocktail dresses. Yet if he's apprehensive, it doesn't show. The fresh-faced clergyman's blue eyes gleam with enthusiasm, and his face is animated and lively. Of medium build and average height, he's quick with a quip and a laugh. Immediately he begins to work the room. He greets people, shaking hands, and saluting acquaintances who seem to be everywhere. The priest is impossible to miss, and most here hope not to.

His name is Albert Cutié, and at 30 years old he is one of the star attractions tonight. Starting September 27, for an hour each afternoon, five days a week, the young cleric is scheduled to host a talk show on Telemundo. He will be seen coast to coast from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. His producers pledge to deliver a show unlike any other on television. Cutié says he aspires to be Father Oprah. Most of all, Telemundo hopes the priest's brand of advice and guidance will excite Hispanic America and lead the troubled network to the ratings promised land.

Father Albert puts some spirit into his Masses
Steve Satterwhite
Father Albert puts some spirit into his Masses

In TV lingo this gathering, on May 25, is called an "upfront," where a network presents its upcoming season to buyers of bulk advertising time, media analysts, and reporters. The occasion is all about selling a rosy future. The idea is to create a buzz for the new shows. And the Hialeah-based network needs all the hype it can get.

Telemundo has slogged through twelve tumultuous years, leaving sagging ratings and a trail of discarded executives in its wake. Optimism soared in November of 1998 when deep-pocketed partners Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media purchased the network. Finally Telemundo was positioned to compete in its lopsided battle with rival Univision, which captures more than 90 percent of the Spanish-language television market in the United States. Yet the new leadership's first foray into programming bombed. They debuted with embarrassing remakes of formulaic English-language low-budget hits from the '70s and '80s, such as Charlie's Angels and Starsky and Hutch. According to the Nielsen ratings, Telemundo's market share last season plummeted 50 percent, from eighteen to nine percent of Hispanic households. Now, after their first full year of development, they are unveiling a new-fashioned lineup.

After two upfronts in New York and Los Angeles, the Telemundo team made its final stop in Miami. Tonight the mood seems more anticipatory than celebratory. The priest excuses himself and the crowd enters the ballroom. Seats are arrayed before a stage and screen for the presentations. After a few speeches by network salesmen, Nely Galán, president of entertainment for Telemundo, strides to the podium. The 35-year-old Galán, a Cuban from New Jersey, exudes the self-confidence and enthusiasm that has helped make her one of the most successful Hispanic executives in television. More than anyone, she is responsible for Cutié's presence here.

"This is a show I am deeply passionate about," she tells the audience.

A quick montage of Cutié's program flashes across the screen that shows the laughing clergyman entertaining guests. "He is our greatest confidant who can bring out the best in us," an announcer intones. Then the young priest bounds onto the stage. He remarks that many of his parishioners from St. Patrick's Church on Miami Beach are in the audience. They know he always begins his sermons with a joke; tonight will be no different.

The joke starts with a priest who is a social-science teacher, and it goes like this:

The teacher offers to give five dollars to the student in his class who names the most important person in history.

The first child raises his hand and answers, "George Washington, the founder of the greatest country on Earth."

The priest rejects the answer.

A second boy raises his hand and guesses, "Abraham Lincoln ."

The teacher dismisses this answer as well.

Finally a third boy raises his hand and gives the correct answer: "Jesus Christ."

"Very good," the priest/teacher tells the student. "What is your name?"

From the podium Cutié reads the name from a business card given to him earlier by a reporter out in the hallway.

"My name is Jacob Bernstein," says the fictitious boy in the joke.

"Bernstein!" exclaims the teacher. "Isn't that a Jewish name? Why didn't you say Moses or Abraham?"

'The boy responds: "Business is business. Five dollars is five dollars."

The joke is not a huge hit, but more than a few in the audience laugh.

When queried months later about the appropriateness of an ethnic joke told in mixed company at an industry gathering, Cutié acts surprised. He doesn't really understand the implications of what he said. Then again, maybe he does. It's hard to discern because his sentences often end in punch lines.

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