On a Plexiglas stage illuminated by fuchsia-tinged television spotlights, the seated hosts of Paparazzi, a Spanish-language gossip talk show, fiddle with their clothes and adjust their earpieces. A makeup artist applies a final dusting of powder to cheeks painted thick with foundation. Photos of Latin American celebrities flash on monitors mounted behind the hosts. A soundtrack of techno music thumps mutedly through speakers.
Lourdes Ruiz-Toledo, a brassy blond who is one of the show's five commentators, wears a small swath of black lycra tenuously fastened in front by a silver ring. She anxiously adjusts herself, tugging at her skirt to cover a thigh peeking out. She pulls at the strained straps of her dress, looking downward to eye the placement of the ring between her breasts. The production crew giggles.
"Están centradas?" she asks worriedly. "Are they centered?" Laughter erupts, but the show is about to begin. Symmetry achieved, she smiles sweetly and sits straight, ready to rake celebrities over the Paparazzi coals. A camera mounted on a crane swoops down before the five panelists. The host, Frank Cairo, smiles as the producer counts, "Three, two," and points.
The show airs at 7:00 p.m. weekdays on Miami Spanish-language television newcomer Mega TV, which premiered in March 2006. With jokes about the size of Enrique Iglesias's member and commentary about Daisy Fuentes's abandonment of Spanish-language television for English, Paparazzi competes for the local Hispanic market against the soaps of national networks Univision, Telemundo, and TV Azteca. It must also distract audiences from two local rivals, Cuban-centric América TeVe and youth-oriented GenTV-Caracol.
Taped in a studio on NW Seventh Avenue leased from local PBS affiliate WLRN, Paparazzi and Mega get only 4.9 percent of Spanish-speaking viewers for their time slot. Despite these small beginnings, Mega has plans to become a network this fall, expanding its programming to the nation's largest Hispanic markets, New York and Los Angeles. Paparazzi has already been syndicated by twenty stations across the country. It reached national audiences July 2, and its reception might determine whether the small Miami station will become a player outside South Florida.
Launching a network might sound like an overly ambitious goal for a brand so young. But Mega's parent company, Spanish Broadcasting Systems (SBS), is one of the largest Spanish radio broadcasters in the United States and Puerto Rico; it owns twenty stations in seven of the top ten markets. And Spanish-language TV viewership is among the fastest growing segments of the market.
The company's president, Raúl Alarcón, decided the time was right to expand into television in 2005, when he purchased WDLP-TV 22, which broadcasts from Key West. In 2006 he hired Cynthia Hudson-Fernandez as executive vice president and chief creative officer. Hudson has a promising track record: She worked in programming at Telemundo during its ratings heyday in the early Nineties. She went on to develop cable channels MGM and Casa Club in South America. In 2002 she helped transition Cosmopolitan Television from its origins in Spain to Latin America, where it is now a highly successful international brand.
A sharp, fast-talking woman with a constantly buzzing cell phone, Hudson says Mega is aimed at a different kind of audience: "A younger, up-and-coming, realistic new Hispanic who many times watches English," she explains. And one who has the same schizophrenic viewing habits as people who watch English-language television. "Nobody watches the same show every night."
Hudson says Mega's programming -- particularly its political talk shows -- will adjust from a Miami focus to one more attractive to Mexican-Americans, who are a majority of Spanish-language viewers. But she points out that non-Mexicans play a significant role in television today. "Look at the most popular people on Univision," she says. "Don Francisco is Chilean, Cristina is Cuban."
Hudson is focused on finding similar personalities. "I look for people that I can brand," she says. Miamians will recognize her efforts from billboards around town. There's Jaime Bayly, a bespectacled intellectual and openly bisexual native of Peru who channels the spirit of Larry King in his nightly interview show, Bayly. Hudson says she met Bayly in 1992 after watching him blast President Alberto Fujimori on his first show in his native country. She admired his willingness to confront controversy.
The host of Paparazzi, Frank Cairo, is another crossover from the big networks, although there he worked behind the scenes as a producer. Born in Miami to Cuban parents, Cairo has the slicked hair and tan complexion his new profession demands. He has faith in Mega, because he trusts Hudson. "When we knew Cynthia was here, we were on board," he says.
Not everyone fits Hudson's vision. The popular radio hosts of El Vacilón, Enrique Santos and Joe Ferrero, taped a daily segment that aired in the evening for most of Mega TV's first year. In January 2007 it was canceled. Santos and Ferrero quit their radio show in March, a day after Hudson commented to El Nuevo Herald that "Maybe the formats we were trying with these people weren't the right ones for their talent."
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"My experience with Mega TV was quite negative," says Santos. "They shit on me and my partner."
Paparazzi's original host, Graciela Mori, who made the show Mega's most popular for a time, left last February over "contract disputes," leading to further speculation about the station's stability.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of the rough road ahead is this: In the past two years, SBS's stock price has fallen from $10 a share to its current price of $4.44. Much of that drop came after the company acquired the Key West station.
But the people who run Mega TV remain optimistic. Last year SBS purchased a 65,000-square-foot broadcasting center in Doral that is currently under renovation. There the company will consolidate its TV and radio studios. A planned expansion will allow room for more television production -- and perhaps original programming. "We're exactly where we should be for a channel that's only one year old," concludes Hudson.