El Donahue

A producer behind the camera flashes a cue and Pedro Sevcec, whose bearded visage is known to television viewers throughout much of the Spanish-speaking world, begins his pitch. "?Que le paso?" he asks. "He betrayed you? She betrayed you?" His voice deepens slightly with the empathy of a trusted confidant. "Do you want to confront the person who did this to you? Now is your opportunity. Call us and participate in our program."

Sevcec, dressed in an elegant navy suit with heavily padded shoulders, pauses briefly. A wave of white hair, sprayed into an immobile shock, lies over his forehead. A heavy layer of foundation lends a pink hue to his face. The host of Sevcec, one of Telemundo Network's top-rated television shows, will soon begin taping today's programs -- "My Son Is a Gang Member" and "I'm Pregnant and I Don't Know What to Do" -- but first he must read more promotions for upcoming segments.

The fifteen-second spots, called "1-800-Billboards," will find homes in Telemundo's morning lineup and on future episodes of Sevcec, whose primarily female viewership stretches across the United States and twelve other countries. At the bottom of the screen a toll-free number will flash like a baited hook for the desperate, the vengeful, and the vainglorious.

And they will bite. Negligent mothers. Mud wrestlers. Abused children. Hypnotists. People whose marriages are in ruin. Women jealous of their mothers. Rock stars promoting new videos. Women who are really men. Girls who don't like their stepfathers.

Sevcec continues in the same steady tone: "Three, two, one ... Are you despairing because you participated in a Syms commercial and suddenly [dramatic pause] everyone is laughing at you?" He stops and lets loose a high-pitched chortle. After a moment's confusion, the production crew dissolves into laughter. Even segment producer Adela Maruri smiles. She's the butt of his joke, having once appeared in a Syms ad. (Sevcec delights in playing pranks and practical jokes on his colleagues. His favorite seems to be the surprise scare). The audience slowly catches on and titters. But already, Sevcec is back on track: "Senora, Senor, do you think your children don't love you? Are you in pain? Are you anguished? Come and talk with us," he purrs.

The 43-year-old Sevcec is clearly having a blast, and why not? For the past four years, a steady stream of guests has come to air grievances and bare conflicts on a program that often resembles group therapy, hosted by a man some call the Latin Phil Donahue.

He's come a long way since his first job as a radio sportscaster in Uruguay some twenty years ago. Now he's one of the fastest-rising Hispanic media stars in the United States. And though some journalists may say he sold his soul and sacrificed more than a few personal relationships along the way, their voices are drowned by an eager industry and a growing audience happy to share their lives with him.

Today, the six-foot-three talk-show host is still animated from a recent visit to New York City and the unveiling of Telemundo's new fall lineup -- which seems to consist entirely of Spanish versions of old Anglo shows such as Charlie's Angels. "If you turned off the sound, it could be NBC," marvels Sevcec. The event received heavy media attention, not so much for the refried television as for a chance to get to know the new network owner -- Sony, the Japanese media conglomerate that, along with Liberty Media, announced last November the purchase (pending FCC approval) of Telemundo for $539 million. The new parent has promised to invest heavily in Telemundo's uphill battle for supremacy against Univision, its only competitor. Telemundo currently has an anemic seventeen percent of the Spanish-speaking U.S. market. The prize at stake: an estimated 8.4 million Hispanic households, the fastest-growing viewing population in the country.

As if being the first male to host a Spanish-language TV talk show in the United States weren't enough, Sevcec is also the star player in a bold venture that is trying to accomplish what many previously thought impossible: uniting the nation's Hispanics by radio. Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to noon, he hosts Sevcec Live, a current-affairs program for Radio Unica, the first Spanish-language talk-radio network in this country. Fueled by exclusive radio rights to the biggest sports tournament on the planet -- soccer's World Cup -- Radio Unica already has more than 60 affiliates after only seven months of operation.

Suddenly Sevcec is everywhere -- on the radio, as a BellSouth spokesman for the Yellow Pages, in public service announcements against urban ills such as teen violence. In addition to Sevcec, he hosts a Monday talk show seen only in Miami. His face is as familiar to Hispanics as it is unknown to Anglos. The amiable celebrity seems to be living a fairy-tale success story that would be right at home on one of his shows. Like any good Sevcec segment, his story froths with drama, passion, and a few tears. Consider the possible titles: "Serious Journalists Who Become Talk-Show Hosts." "Men Who Change Women When They Change Jobs." "My Love Life in the Public Eye."

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Jacob Bernstein
Contact: Jacob Bernstein

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