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‘Despierta’ Wakes Up Ratings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A visiting beauty queen is goaded into giving the weather report. Cosita, the show’s canine mascot, relieves herself in the lap of an unsuspecting guest. And co-host Fernando Arau does a regular mime routine that is the best thing this side of Marcel Marceau.

Welcome to “Despierta America,” a largely improvisational weekday morning program on the Spanish-language Univision network. Here the serious and interesting share time with the silly and inane, while the unpredictable has become so commonplace that even the people who write the show are often surprised by what unfolds before the cameras.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” says Ana Maria Canseco, one of the show’s five co-hosts. “I guess that’s why people watch us. They were trying to discover a new formula for a morning show. And right now, it’s like they found a very good [one].”

In fact, it’s become a formula for success because “Despierta America” (“Wake Up America”), which celebrates its first anniversary today, has quickly carved out a niche for itself in the morning market. The show has boosted Univision’s national morning ratings by more than 46%. Like the national morning shows on ABC, CBS and NBC, “Despierta America” features a mix of news and weather reports, in-studio interviews and regular segments on topics such as personal finance, entertainment and family issues.

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In Los Angeles, where the show is seen on KMEX-TV Channel 34, the network’s flagship affiliate, “Despierta America” is the third-most-watched morning program in the market, ranking just a fraction of a ratings point behind ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“It was a time slot that was dead,” says cohost Rafael Jose, who, in keeping with the show’s eclectic theme, holds a doctorate in dental medicine but was a top-rated radio deejay and television game-show host in Puerto Rico before joining Univision. “But [the network] said, ‘Hey, we can sell this time period. We can compete.’ ”

It’s who they’re competing with, however, that’s significant. Even before “Despierta America” went on the air, Univision had built a sizable ratings lead over Telemundo, its only Spanish-language network rival. In the last five years, the company’s share of the Spanish television audience in the U.S. grew from 57% to more than 80% while, overall, Univision’s viewership has grown 14% annually--more than any other U.S. network, English or Spanish, broadcast or cable--since A. Jerrold Perenchio took over the company in 1992.

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But to maintain that kind of growth, Univision needs to draw bilingual viewers away from the general-market networks with something other than soccer and Mexican soap operas. Which is where “Despierta America” comes in.

The program, which took over a time slot once shared by a decades-old Mexican comedy show and “Plazo Semaso,” the Spanish-language version of “Sesame Street,” is loosely modeled after traditional morning fare such as ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today.” But the network has tried to position it as an alternative show by cultivating a decidedly Latino flavor. For example, its set is decorated in warm earth tones and features Latin American pottery and artwork such as “Flower Day,” Diego Rivera’s classic 1925 painting. Topics, meanwhile, often gravitate toward family matters, which tend to rate higher with Latino viewers.

Producers of the show, which originates in Miami, have also tried to keep the program light by encouraging their witty, high-energy hosts to improvise as much as possible. This has led Arau, Jose, Canseco and fellow co-hosts Neida Sandoval and Giselle Blondet frequently to break into impromptu dance routines, uncontrollable fits of laughter or bouts of storytelling that provide a nice balance to the show’s weightier news and interview segments.

“It’s a fresh show, it’s different,” says Sandoval, a veteran Honduran journalist who handles the show’s news segments. “Univision is a pioneer with this show. This is different, and they’re putting a lot of effort into this show.”

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“I think [it’s] something important in our growth as Latinos inside the United States,” adds Blondet. “We’re showing another face. It’s not melodramatic like a telenovela.”

And now that “Despierta America” has found a home in the morning lineup, the biggest challenge the show faces, agree the co-hosts, is filling 15 hours of air time each week--not because it lacks material, but because the show is filmed live, a daunting prospect for former soap opera actresses such as Canseco and Blondet, who are used to getting a second take when they flub a line. That has led to a number of on-air bloopers, like the one last week when Blondet’s watch slipped off during a dance routine and shot across the set like a tiny missile. Or the morning a producer broke up the crew by taking an off-camera pratfall during a news segment that wasn’t supposed to have a laugh track.

“You just continue. If you make it very obvious and get nervous, it’s just going to be worse,” says Canseco, an entertainment reporter and nightly news anchor for Los Angeles’ Telemundo affiliate, KVEA-TV Channel 52, before joining “Despierta America.”

“So we just chill out and enjoy it. If it’s funny, you laugh. It’s a very laid-back show.”

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* “Despierta America” airs from 7 to 10 a.m. weekdays on KMEX-TV Channel 34.


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