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New Focus for Telemundo Network : Television: A ratings slump and dwindling access to <i> novelas</i> force a change in programming philosophy. There’s a renewed effort to serve the Mexican American audience.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beset by tepid ratings and cut off from the Mexican soap operas that would provide the most likely antidote, the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo has assumed a new strategy against its longtime rival Univision by offering a daily lineup of mostly U.S.-produced programming.

After nearly a decade of coming under fire from Latino organizations that criticized both networks for not being responsive to U.S. Latinos, Telemundo--whose flagship station is KVEA-TV Channel 52 in Los Angeles--has established a Hollywood production center and in recent weeks has introduced four series made there.

“Spanish television in the U.S. has evolved around providing novelas , or soap operas, to viewers,” said Roland A. Hernandez, who took over as president and chief executive officer of Telemundo in March. “We feel there’s an opportunity to provide viewers with programming other than novelas that is entertaining and culturally sensitive.”

Telemundo’s new programming philosophy is a response to a 2 1/2-year ratings slump and dwindling access to Mexican-made novelas , which have become largely the province of Univision, owned by Mexico City media baron Emilio Azcarraga and investor A. Jerrold Perenchio.

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Because Azcarraga also owns the Mexican network Televisa, Univision stations such as KMEX-TV Channel 34 get first crack at the popular soap operas produced there. Telemundo has tried to compete with novelas made in South America, but they haven’t had the same allure for viewers.

So Telemundo, which filed for bankruptcy in 1993 and reorganized last December, decided to focus on serving the Mexican American audience, which comprises 65% of its viewers and is concentrated mainly in the Southwest United States. The way to do that, network officials reasoned, was to provide programming that was both different from the fare on Univision and more attuned to the Mexican American culture.

To that end, the network rolled out four new programs in April:

* “La Hora Lunatica” (The Lunatic Hour), a David Letterman-style talk show starring Los Angeles radio personality Humberto Luna. The show has “a situation-comedy flavor” and includes pre-produced skits. It airs weekdays at noon.

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* “El y Ella” (He and She) is a talk show focusing on gender-related issues. Hosted by Gigi Graciette and Antonio Farre, it airs weekdays at 3 p.m.

* “Dando y Dando” (Giving and Giving) is a fast-paced game show that airs weekdays at 7 p.m. and features frenetic interaction from both the audience and viewers calling in from all over the country.

* “Marcador Final” (Final Countdown) is a sports talk show, airing Sundays at 10 p.m.

The shows all originate from Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, where they are taped before an audience of 125 people. Previously, Telemundo, like Univision, produced most of its U.S.-originated programming from corporate headquarters in Miami.

“I think the previous administrations [at Telemundo] believed that programming out of Miami would satisfy the needs of the viewing public, and I don’t believe that,” said Hernandez, a 37-year-old native of the Los Angeles area. “There needs to be programming that is more in tune with the background and lifestyles of people in the west and southwest crescents of the country. I think we need to have a bi-coastal production capacity.”

Under Hernandez and Harry Abraham-Castillo, executive vice president of programming and production, the network’s U.S.-produced fare has risen to 60% of its overall program lineup--27% of which comes from Los Angeles.

“It used to be that when you were working in Hispanic television, it was of a second-rate or different quality,” said Abraham-Castillo, formerly an independent producer in Los Angeles. “I totally hate that. Everything I want to see on the air I want to see with the same production values [as English-language television].”

The National Hispanic Media Coalition, which has criticized both networks over the years for inadequate local programming, is pleased at Telemundo’s moves.

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“This is a step in the right direction,” said Alex Nogales, chairman of the media watchdog organization. “I think they’re making a real effort to go after the Mexican American market. Doing everything in Miami was really ridiculous. It didn’t make any sense whatsoever when the majority of Latinos in the U.S. are Mexicans and Salvadorans and Guatemalans. And getting programming from Mexico did Mexicans here a tremendous disservice because living here is a different reality. We need programming that reflects what is happening around us instead of just getting rehashed stuff from Mexico.”

Independent producers of Spanish-language programming also are heartened by the effort.

“I think it’s a good thing for us to have so many programs produced in L.A.--for a change,” said Los Angeles-based producer Hernan de Becky. “I applaud them for that. The problem is that it’s not enough.”

The Telemundo executives say there will be more. A prototype Saturday morning show called “Telemundo Infantil” (Children’s Telemundo) recently solicited input from viewers about what they would like to see in a children’s show.

“We’re not going to get kids out of ‘Power Rangers,’ ” Abraham-Castillo said. “But we’re trying to supplement--bring things that are relevant to L.A.'s Latino children. We want to provide positive messages in Spanish that are focusing on their culture.”


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