Santana to Shakira -- que maravilla!

How to Read MTV

In the heady idealism of the 1970s, Chilean novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote How To Read Donald Duck, a treatise against cultural imperialism. The cuddly little creatures in Disney movies and other kiddie tales, so the argument goes, send the message that Europe and the United States are civilized and superior to the rest of the world, which is backward and inferior. This is bad enough if you are from Europe or the United States, but it is especially bad if you are growing up in Latin America: The backward one is you.Until recently, the message wasn't much better in music or television.

"Go pre-1993," says Antoinette Zel, the 37-year-old president of MTV Networks Latin America, of the dark years before the arrival of her network. "The nature of international entertainment involved in Latin America was really an afterthought, a syndication market, an aftermarket. Latin America was never considered the reason you're creating content. MTV Latin America has validated the region's cultural and creative importance. That sends a message to the market that says, 'You're the first world to us. You're worth having your own MTV.' That's strengthened the pride of kids."

Nothing to quack at, but then just which kids does MTV reach?

"Cable is a filter of its own," concedes Zel. "You have to have enough [money] to pay for cable services and that cuts a big section of the population out. We'd like it to be broader but right now our distribution dominates the structure of our country feeds."

Translation: MTV Latin America gives its viewers what they want. That means that the Latin America seen and heard on MTV is the one people who can afford cable live in.

So a funny thing happens to programming. Argentina, ordinarily considered the country that most wishes it were in Europe, where 80 percent of the households have cable access, is where MTV Latin America has the highest Latin content (that country also has the longest tradition of national rock). In Mexico the plugged-in percentage plummets to around 14 percent, or 3.2 million homes -- and the kids' willingness to watch Latin American videos falls too. In smaller markets, like Chile, Peru, Colombia, Central America, or the Dominican Republic, access -- and Latin content -- drops further.

Don't expect to hear any quaint folkloric bands unless they've been absorbed by some electronic DJ or rock fusionist. And don't expect to hear much salsa either.

Or reggaetón, the rage of the moment in Puerto Rico. That island receives the same MTV programming as the mainland United States. The network does not broadcast in Cuba at all, natch -- although it can be picked up by those who've managed to score a DirecTV dish. Which leaves the little half-island of the Dominican Republic as the major Caribbean client, and the cable-watchers there are not pining for merengue.

MTV's Latin America grooves to rock and pop and only very rarely (mostly in Chile, of all places) to hip-hop. That some of that rock and pop is now in Spanish says more about the rise of an affluent global class that shares many of the same tastes than it does about any greater parity of Latin America with the North, especially as the Argentine economy tanks and the rest of the region fares little better.

It is in this desperate atmosphere that the network offers its first-ever pan-regional music video awards show, the MTV Video Music Awards Latin America (VMALA).

"People ask me, 'You're doing this now?'" says Zel. "I tell them, 'You have to do it now. You have to give them something.'"

And in the process, MTV is giving a little something to Latin America's neighbors to the north. Thursday's program will be broadcast not only to Latin America but on MTV networks around the world, including the U.S. channel MTV2 (and rebroadcast on November 1 on the U.S. MTV). Unlike the Latin Grammys, however, whose lackluster telecasts have suffered from watering down Latin music to please a crossover audience, the VMALA concentrates on Latin America and casts the United States as the aftermarket.

"We're not trying to sell anyone anything new. We talk to our audience every day," says Zel. "Even though [the show] will be seen by likely U.S. Latin viewers, we try to stay very pure to the audience."

That's a message you'll never hear from Donald Duck.


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