Yo Quiero Mi MTV

To reach Latin American kids, MTV first has to invent Latin America

Simón Bolívar's dream of a unified Latin American republic died hacking and wheezing in Colombia in 1830. Che Guevara's vision of a Latin American revolution took a bullet in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967. Tonight's attempt by MTV to rally the region around a music video awards show -- the first MTV Video Music Awards Latin America (VMALA) -- might appear a less lofty aspiration. But that doesn't make it any easier for the network to get kids from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego to turn on and tune in. What's hot in Managua is not in Santiago. That smash hit in Buenos Aires just won't play in Monterrey. How can a single show come off cool and connected to 22 different Latin American countries -- especially when the show is broadcast live from Miami Beach?Nevertheless, this pop-culture Bolívarian campaign is being plotted from a sixth-floor conference room at the MTV offices in the Sun Trust Bank Building at the corner of Alton and Lincoln roads. A replica of the astronaut who planted the MTV flag on the moon in early promos for the U.S. network looks down on a meeting of 40 tattooed twentysomethings and a handful of MTV veterans over 35 as they report on their progress sixteen days before the show will air.

In place of the great South American liberator sits executive producer (and senior vice president of programming and production) Charlie Singer, an unassuming Anglo who was there when MTV began 21 years ago in New York City, then helped launch the network in New Zealand, before staking claim to Latin America. Singer listens as Los Angeles-based producer Audrey Morrissey, another long-time hand who has put together numerous awards shows for the U.S. network, calls for reports on marketing, talent, content, logistics.

With her shoulder-length blond hair, blue-tinted glasses, and slight Valley accent, Morrissey vibes less Latina than Phoebe on Friends. She points out that while the show will be in Spanish, the production documents will be in English. "Fortunately our TelePrompTer operator speaks Spanish," she adds for a laugh. Later she warns staff that the woman in charge of the credits does not, so make sure she has your name spelled right.

Next Morrissey congratulates José Tillán, vice president of music and artist relations, for already having booked "100 percent of the talent and 85 percent of the presenters." Tillán has all the biggest names in Latin rock and pop -- Carlos Santana, Shakira, Maná, Café Tacuba, Paulina Rubio, Juanes, Diego Torres, and on and on -- as well as international acts Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, System of a Down, Lenny Kravitz, and Johnny Knoxville, the host of MTV's gross-out show Jackass, which is wildly popular throughout Latin America.

The room applauds.

Tillán bows his salt-and-pepper head.

Then Morrissey launches into a "little show and tell" on an overhead screen, rolling a series of short spots announcing the nominees for video of the year in a booming masculine voice of indeterminate national origin.

"We're going to try to switch to a female voiceover," interjects Singer.

"I definitely want a strong, deep, sexy female voice to balance out our two male hosts," Morrissey agrees.

All around the table, people shout the name "Sasha."

The young woman who must be Sasha accepts the mock offer like a good sport.

"Can you do a neutral accent?" jokes Singer.

Sasha nods.

"C'mon Sasha, say 'Shakira,'" Singer commands.

"Shaaaaa-kiraaa!" Sasha purrs as the room erupts in laughter.

When MTV Latin America opened on Lincoln Road in 1993, blond Sony bombshell Shakira was still a curvy dark-haired beauty unknown outside her native Colombia -- and the tastes of Latin American viewers were anything but neutral. So when MTV exported its music video network and signature "irreverence" (the network's favorite word) down Latin America way, the company ended up splitting its programming into three separate feeds (North, Southeast, and Southwest) and setting up offices in Mexico City and Buenos Aires to keep in touch with the biggest markets. MTV Latin America transmits plenty of North American rock and pop -- Jackass and The Osbournes, System of a Down, and Avril Lavigne -- but for the past nine years it has thrown in Latin American bands and humor as well. That strategy has allowed the network to break bands across the region that might only have been big in their home countries.

"We were a crucial platform to export this music," says Tillán, naming bands MTV has boosted regionwide. "[Colombia's] Aterciopelados. [Mexico's] Café Tacuba. [Argentina's] Fabulosos Cadillacs. We were reaching all these countries. Radio only reaches your city. We took chances. We believed in bands from the beginning, like Juanes. That first record didn't sell at all."

"But we liked it," Singer chimes in, preferring to come off as a genuine music fanatic rather than a calculating industry exec.

Just as the U.S. network's role in breaking obscure bands in the Eighties (Adam Ant, anyone?) caught the attention of American record labels, MTV Latin America's power in promoting a number of otherwise alternative Latin bands soon brought the majors -- many with relatively new Latin imprints -- knocking on the door.

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