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When the Cuban-born DJ talks about a blessing in disguise 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 United States.
"In the beginning -- para decirte la verdad -- 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. "I was, 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 "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 warranted an immediate response. The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that 31 million Hispanics made up 12 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 by more than 84 percent between 1990 and 1999. 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- to 24-year-old audience that prefers English programming if we wanted to get them at all."