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Univision morning show may be an awakening for big networks

TelevisionEntertainmentTelevision IndustryUnivision (tv network)Media IndustryMexico

MIAMI — On the set of Univision's live morning show, the hosts don goofy wigs to sing and perform outlandish skits, while a Chihuahua named Honey Berry scampers underfoot.

"She almost got stepped on this morning," a Univision executive said as the dog, which has its own Twitter account, disappeared behind sound equipment.

Univision's zany "Despierta America" has experienced a Cuban coffee-like jolt in the ratings. Ratings for the four-hour daily news and variety show, whose name means "Wake up America" have jumped 28% compared with last season, boosted by younger viewers coveted by major broadcast networks.

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"If you are going to watch TV in the morning, you want to wake up to something that makes you laugh and feel good," said Gloria Constanza, chief contact strategist for the advertising agency D'Exposito & Partners. "'Despierta's' format is so friendly, people feel like it is inviting them in."

Morning shows are big business and are sometimes a network's most profitable show. Last year, morning programs on broadcast and cable TV raked in a combined $1.4 billion in advertising revenue, according to Kantar Media.

But fortunes have been shifting. NBC's "Today" lost its No. 1 perch to rival ABC's "Good Morning America" last year amid revelations of behind-the-scenes back-stabbing at NBC and the tearful exit of co-host Ann Curry. The long-dominant morning show is down 12% in viewers compared with last season, while "Good Morning America" is up 8%. The revamped "CBS This Morning," led by Charlie Rose, has climbed 11%.

In Los Angeles, "Despierta America" is the third-most-watched morning show, behind "GMA" and KTLA-TV Channel 5's newscast. Among viewers ages 18 to 49, "Despierta" beats the shows on ABC, NBC and CBS.

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Advertising revenue from "Despierta America" shot up 52% to $163 million in 2012, according to Kantar Media. This year, the show is expected to capture even more, and it is helping the network boost its overall ad sales nearly 17% during the industry's annual sales bazaar.

"'Despierta' is totally different from how the other networks program their morning shows," said Lia Silkworth, senior vice president of Tapestry, a Chicago ad agency. "It is more lively — it feels like a party. And its growth shows the importance of connecting with viewers and being culturally relevant."

On a recent morning, the set at Univision's headquarters in west Miami was controlled chaos as stagehands rushed to shift props, potted plants and furniture during commercial breaks while a news anchor read headlines and a stylist prepared to reveal a beauty makeover. In a regular feature called the "Soap Opera Club," the male hosts and guests comically analyzed plot twists from telenovelas that Univision aired the night before.

The vibe is "Good Morning America" meets "The Carol Burnett Show." On a recent morning, the hosts spray-painted a male colleague's hair green to celebrate a Mexican soccer team. In one skit, a prominent Miami stylist shrieked in mock horror after having his hair chemically fried by his own brand of hair product. (It was just a wig.)

"You don't need coffee in the morning with this show," talent manager Emilio Estefan, the husband of singer Gloria Estefan, said after appearing on the show.

In the last year, trying to increase their exposure with Latino audiences, A-list stars have trooped to the Miami set, among them Mark Wahlberg, Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Will Ferrell and Halle Berry (she was so smitten with the Chihuahua, then named Honey, that the dog was renamed Honey Berry).

"The big stars don't always speak Spanish, but they do like the fun of the show," said Karla Martinez, one of the hosts.

The show's growth spurt came after Univision Communications Inc. Chief Executive Randy Falco, a former top NBC executive, felt the show had stalled and was not doing enough to tap its revenue potential.

He installed a new executive producer. Then last fall, Univision brought in Alberto Ciurana, a top executive from Mexico's dominant entertainment company, Grupo Televisa, to be Univision's chief programmer.

"During my first meeting with Randy in New York, he told me, "We need to fix 'Despierta,'" Ciurana recalled in an interview. "It has been a big priority — and we needed to do a lot."

The pacing changed. Segments were shortened. The sleek European-looking white-and-lavender set was replaced by bright red, gold, tan and even fuchsia furniture.

"It was too cold, it was not reflective of our Hispanic community," Ciurana said. "We are a colorful community, and now we have a lot of warmth and colors."

The cast also got a makeover. Alan Tacher was brought over from "Hoy," Televisa's top morning program from Mexico City. He joined two other recent additions: Johnny Lozada, who in the 1980s was a member of the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo; and Ana Patricia González, a beauty pageant winner from a small town in northern Mexico.

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Two veterans stayed on. Martinez, who was born in Mexico and grew up in Texas, joined the network nearly 18 years ago as a news correspondent in El Paso and landed a spot on the morning show in 2006.

The show's longest serving host is Raul González, a Venezuelan who came to the U.S. 19 years ago and joined "Despierta" in 2002. He created a sketch comedy character, Dona Meche, a loud-mouthed Colombian housekeeper in sensible white shoes known for flirting campily when Hollywood actors — Gerard Butler was a recent example — appear on the show.

As the disruptive anchor changes at "Today" demonstrated, such casting decisions are crucial for morning shows, TV experts say, because the frequency of the programs — five days a week — encourages viewers to consider the hosts as extended family.

"The new cast has chemistry, and they connect with the audience in a humble and genuine way," Constanza said. "And they share their own personal stories. It feels like a family."

Raul Gonzalez discussed his ongoing struggles with his weight. Ana Patricia Gonzalez shed tears during a marriage counseling segment and revealed her six-year marriage was breaking up. Martinez and her young twin daughters had their long tresses cut — live on the air — to support the charity Locks of Love.

Even Cuban propman Alfredo Anaya, who began appearing on camera as a regular in the "Soap Opera Club" segment about six months ago, has become a local celebrity. Anaya, who had no previous on-air experience, now gets autograph requests when fans see him on the street.

"This is a mirror of how Latino people live," said Luz Maria Doria, the show's director and executive producer. "We have fun, we cry, we sing and dance and we cook — but we want to get skinny — and we are always looking for others to help."

Tapestry's Silkworth said it will be interesting to see whether "Despierta America" is a wake-up call for English-language networks that might borrow some of the show's elements in an effort to chase the increasingly important Latino audience.

"This might be the future of morning TV," she said.

meg.james@latimes.com

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