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When the Cuban-born DJ talks about a blessing in the sky he doesn't mean he's grateful for his vast record collection. He is talking about the radical shift in the channel's programming since last September, when most of Mun2's shows, which originally aired in Spanish, were gradually shifted over to English. Felix Sama, then, is a survivor. And at the same time, a symbol of the channel and the perfect synthesis of what is now so hot: the urban, Latino-rooted, English-speaking youth living in the U.S.
"In the beginning -- pa' decirte la verdá -- I was a little scared because I wasn't fluent in Spanish and I had the only bilingual show on the network," laughs Sama, who started out hosting the now-defunct music show Upbeat. "Sounds like, man, si me voy a quedar aquí [if I want to stay here] I have to improve my Spanish, you know? Fortunately things worked out when the programming went more to the English market. It was a blessing."
Cuban-born Yolanda Foster, Mun2's VP of programming and promotions, was there from minute one. She explains why the language of choice was Spanish when Mun2 launched in October 2001. That is to say, what happened to the channel that billed itself as the so-called "only Spanish-language general entertainment network committed to young U.S. Hispanics"?
"Being the new Telemundo sister network, we had more ability to get Spanish-language content," says Foster. "At the time Mun2 launched, we didn't have the census information that came very shortly afterwards, probably less than a month later."
Those numbers needed an immediate response. The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that 31 million Hispanics made up twelve percent of the U.S. population. While the median age of Hispanics is 24, fully two-thirds of those under 24 are born as bilingual U.S. citizens. Last year, the numbers kept climbing; the most recent update reports that there are now 37 million Hispanics in the United States, outnumbering African Americans as the nation's largest minority (not accounting for Hispanics who consider themselves both Hispanic and black). According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, a Georgia-based public service unit, the buying power of U.S. Hispanics increased from 1990 to 1999 by more than 84 percent. By 2010, Hispanics are expected to have more than $900 billion to spend.
A year and a half ago network television giant NBC bought Telemundo for $1.98 billion plus stock options, an expensive move NBC made in order to target this growing segment of the U.S. population. "The vibrant Hispanic market accounts for a significant and growing share of the nation's economy and we are eager to draw on Telemundo's expertise to better serve this important audience," NBC chairman and CEO Bob Wright said at the time of the acquisition in October 2001. Telemundo chief operating officer Alan Sokol, who has been with the network since 1998, says that Mun2's language shift was "Telemundo's initiative," not NBC's. "NBC is very supportive, and they completely believe and buy into our plan and mission: There is a need for a channel that speaks to English-speaking Latinos in the U.S.," says Sokol.
As a family perk, NBC is giving Mun2 additional resources to increase its distribution. But Sokol knows that it's much easier to sell Mun2 as an English-language channel to national cable operators. "You're dealing with, say, a Joe Smith in Wichita, Kansas, who doesn't speak a word of Spanish. You're trying to sell him a Spanish service that he can watch but he won't understand, so if you try to sell him something in English he can go 'Oh, I get it, I've seen Jennifer Lopez, I know who Ricky Martin is, I know who Sammy Sosa is.'"
At first, most of Mun2's Spanish content was created to air in Latin America and Spain through Telemundo International, where the network feeds its best shows. But the United States has proved to be a much more lucrative market. "There are many reasons to understand why the U.S. Hispanic market is our priority," says Foster. "Basically, the revenue base here is much bigger than what you can expect from Latin America, and I don't have to explain much about how bad things are in Latin America. So we had to adapt ourselves to the needs of that 18-24-year-old audience that prefers English programming if we wanted to get them at all."
"There is a large portion of the young Latino population in the U.S. that lives in an English-language world," says Sokol. "That audience, which we believe is large and advertiser-friendly, was not being represented anywhere on TV, and we felt that was the sweet spot to go after." To him, switching languages does not create a paradox. "It's an evolution," he assures. "What we did in Spanish was good, and I think it would have worked on a long-term basis, but I think the idea of having a predominantly English channel that targets young, urban, bilingual, and English-speaking Hispanics is a bigger market and a more available market."
And as for the huge number of South Americans arriving in the country on a daily basis who don't speak English and may feel lost watching the new Mun2? Sokol suggests that they check out Telemundo. Simply put, if you're young but don't speak or understand English, then why don't you watch last year's smash hit reality series Protagonistas de la musica or this year's Protagonistas de novela? Then again, how many people do you know who will mutter a "Thanks, but no, thanks"? Probably a lot, but definitely not enough. Not enough to make Mun2 go back to Spanish.
"We launched with music videos, a low rider show, an extreme sports show, and a talk show, all of them relevant among youth," enumerates Foster. She believes that Mun2 has a unique musical blend that includes reggaetón, pop, rock en español, and, mostly, hip-hop, the latter of which dominates The Roof. "That's the youth's most important music," she remarks. "Hip-hop is the biggest U.S. export these days. We receive videos from all over Latin America, and we can see how similar they look."
At first Mun2 looked an awful lot like the Miami-based MTV Latin America of the early Nineties, filled with smiling and hyper hosts talking over each other. The difference, though, was in the former network's heavy rotation of hip-hop, R&B, and Caribbean sure shots like reggaetón. Another was in Mun2's complete absence of Spanish dubbing or subtitles during its interviews with Anglo celebrities. Though common wisdom indicates that producers save a considerable amount of time and money when they don't have to create subtitles, Foster says the reason was to promote a bilingual culture.
"As a programmer, I have to admit that I never watched MTV Latin America. It never was our role model," says Foster, who sees the use of music as an international language as the one and only similarity between the two channels. MTV Latin America does not air in the U.S.; the Hispanic version of the channel is primarily available through digital cable on MTV-ES, which plays a strict diet of Latin videos.
In contrast, Mun2 reaches 5.8 million U.S. households and is broadcast in the top twenty U.S. Hispanic markets through basic cable (sometimes as part of an expanded basic service). According to Foster, the channel's audience has grown dramatically in the quarterly Nielsen television ratings since the talents began speaking English on camera in September 2002. However, Mun2's graphics, look, and general mood undoubtedly replicate the widely spread MTV formula. That is, colorful yet baroque TV sets, constantly moving cameras, extreme closeups, and of course, happy-happy, joy-joy hosts.
Dominican-born Anthony Perez, head of the independent production company Perfect Image and co-producer of eleven shows that air on Mun2 (including The Roof), remembers how viewers' positive reaction to Upbeat, one of the channel's early reggaetón and hip-hop shows, initially prompted the language jump. "When we saw how well things were going with Upbeat," says Perez, "I said 'Let's go full English,' and we did it." Aside from "stronger rating numbers," Perez swears to be surprised by the "huge reaction" Mun2 gets from Latin American countries. "We're receiving e-mails from all over Latin America, and written in English!" he marvels.
The reggaetón-oriented Jamz, hosted by Puerto Rican rapper Lisa M., and the rock en español show Planeta Rock, with Argentine host Gustavo Coletti, are the two exceptions to the new English-language rules. Truthfully, though, Lisa M. speaks both languages on camera, and Coletti gets less and less time on camera since Planeta Rock is turning into a Hispanic version of VH1's Behind the Music with plenty of Spanish-language voiceovers. But Planeta Rock's content will never go 100 percent English because "most of the band members in the alternative Latin rock world don't speak English," offers Perez, who produces both shows.
But Perez anticipates some other changes, like promoting thirtysomething Felix Sama to a street reporter who will bring daily content to The Roof. WEDR-FM (99.1) DJ Frankie Needles, born in Miami to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, will eventually entirely replace Sama on the studio turntables. "He is a product of the generation that I'm targeting right now," says Perez of the 23-year-old DJ. But the final plan, according to the producer, is to later replace Needles, too, and bring in an even younger generation of college DJs.
One veteran from the previous Mun2 incarnation is Ricky Marchosky, a 34-year-old born in Panama and one of the hosts of Chat, an English-language talk show that originally aired in Spanish. Marchosky loves the one-hour show's live, interactive format because it allows viewers to exchange ideas and discuss controversial topics without editing. In fact, he surprised its original Latin American audience by coming out of his own closet, which is not seen too often in a Latin culture that is classically macho-oriented. Aware that his American audience is a little more open-minded, he now continues the closet saga in English. "We can have a show together," he once laughed on camera to The Roof's Venezuelan co-producer Mari Urdaneta. "We should call it Mari-con-Ricky."
Marchosky uses the Eighties TV show Qué Pasa, USA? as an example of something that wasn't necessarily seen as a gold mine in the past. "Twenty years ago many TV producers doubted [Qué Pasa, USA?] relevance, but its success proved them wrong," Marchosky notes. "Mun2's concept is relevant to the U.S. Hispanic society -- I mean, those of us with a Latin background that were raised in the American culture. I think it's a brilliant concept that has to be properly shaped and needs a lot of work, but still, it's a brilliant concept.
"Is the channel more relevant now? To the U.S. audience, definitely," he says, "and not only because it's spoken in English, but because it represents a bilingual culture."