WHEN Alex Pels was growing up in Argentina in the 1970s and '80s, he recalls, "there was not really a lot of choices in terms of how you got access to pop culture."
"Once in a blue moon somebody would bring, like, a Rolling Stone [magazine] that somebody had brought from the United States, and it might be 8 months old, but for you it was the latest thing," says Pels, general manager of the Universal City-based mun2 television network. "So you had to keep your antenna open."
What a difference a couple decades has made. Today, Pels suggests, the challenge for young Latinos in the United States isn't to keep their antennae open (or "up," as the case may be), but to keep them from being overloaded by a deluge of new cultural options. "It's not about being defined by a particular style" Pels says, "it's more about being empowered to create your own menu."
Those entrees are lavishly on display in Los Angeles, which is steadily emerging as the creative hub of a new type of bilingual and English-language television aimed at young Latinos who feel equally at home in both the Spanish- and English-speaking worlds.
For years, the city has been locked in a rivalry with Miami and New York to be the epicenter of Latino television production (and Latino pop culture in general). But lately the balance seems to have tipped toward L.A.
Two events in recent weeks underscore L.A.'s central role in catering to young bilingual Latino viewers who want to stay connected to their parents' and grandparents' cultural heritage, but are as likely these days to be tuning into "Grey's Anatomy" as a Spanish-language telenovela.
Last month, mun2 (pronounced moon-dose), which is part of the Telemundo-NBC Universal-General Electric conglomerate, unveiled a new 16,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar production studio complex smack in the middle of Universal CityWalk, completing a months-long relocation from its corporate headquarters in Miami.
Mun2, which was launched as primarily a music channel in October 2001 and struggled initially to define its identity, also has introduced a slew of new programs this year in an attempt to diversify its image and broaden its appeal to a younger demographic -- one that advertisers pay the most to reach.
Mun2's new shows include the film-centric "Have U Cine?" and "The Chicas Project," a 30-minute reality-based show that teams twentysomethings Crash, a Mexican American L.A. neo-punk, and Yasmin, a Dominican from New York who's big into hip-hop and reggaeton. The gals good-naturedly work out their cultural differences while being thrown into challenging situations (e.g. helping a preschool teacher keep order with 20 frenetic kids).
Reaction, so far, has been positive: Mun2's ratings have doubled and in some cases tripled across its broadcast schedule. The network also has begun producing documentaries on issues of interest to its target 18- to 34-year-old demographic, such as last year's special on young Latinos serving in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq.
Also last month, another L.A.-based bilingual network elevated its profile: The 6-year-old cable network LATV reached beyond its 5-million-watt KJLA studios in West Los Angeles and officially converted into a national broadcaster via digital satellite multicast.
LATV already has affiliates in a number of prime Latino markets, including Miami, Houston and Las Vegas and is adding more at a rapid clip. "We always intended for LATV to be a national network," says Danny Crowe, LATV's president and co-founder.
It's still far from clear whether bilingual or English-language programming represents the future of Latino television.
Though dozens of new competitors nip at its heels, the L.A.-based Spanish-language Univision network continues to dominate Latino TV, with a total audience three times the size of second-place Telemundo. It offers viewers a predictable, but immensely popular, diet consisting largely of telenovelas imported from Mexico's giant Televisa network. And it continues to do well with young viewers.
But bilingual and English-language programming gradually seem to be moving out of the "niche" marketing category and into the general market.
National corporations that once advertised only in Spanish now are targeting younger Latinos with English and Spanglish ads. As that has occurred, Los Angeles has solidified its stature as what Crowe calls "the golden egg of bilingual television."
The reason, he says, "is simply the raw numbers."
There are 42 million Latinos in the U.S., about 60% of them Mexican American, and nearly 3 million Latinos between the ages of 12 and 34 in the five-county Los Angeles metropolitan area, the majority Mexican American. Latinos concentrated in border states such as California and Texas tend to be more bilingual or English-dominant than their East Coast counterparts, according to a number of television and advertising executives. That helps explain why television programmers, while hardly ignoring other Latinos, increasingly are focusing in on this previously underserved market -- L.A.'s vast young bicultural Mexican American population -- as the new national taste-makers.
In a way, mun2 appears to be following the lead of smaller but scrappy L.A.-based competitors such as Si TV, a 3-year-old English-language cable channel with millions of subscribers nationwide, which targets young Latinos with its tagline-mantra, "Speak English, Live Latino." In other words, program in English, but don't let your Latino sensibility get lost in translation.
"Young Hispanics in America today are proud to be American," says Michael Schwimmer, CEO of Si TV, "but at the same time there are very strong ties to their parents' and their grandparents' heritage."
For Telemundo, moving mun2 to the West Coast fits within a larger corporate strategy. Browne believes that the youth-oriented network, which is distributed nationwide to 11 million households, could serve as a creative magnet for Telemundo as a whole, attracting top up-and-coming talent that would generate cutting-edge content for the network's other broadcast platforms.
Flavio Morales, mun2 vice president of programming, says that for many Southern California Latino families, Universal CityWalk already functions as many town plazas do throughout Latin America -- safe, convenient places to socialize and bring the family.
Some of those visitors, he says, now will stick around to attend tapings of mun2 shows at the new studio complex, which is housed in a see-through structure that floats above the walkway adjacent to B.B. King's Blues Club and Restaurant.
"The only way for mun2 to be relevant was to be in L.A.," says Morales, who grew up in East L.A.
Like its competitors, LATV is also looking to get interactive: During the network's daily show "LATV Live" (4-6 p.m.), viewers can call in and talk with the program's three young hosts using phones and text-messaging.
"We want to maximize the ability to communicate with our audience," says Howard Bolter, who recently was lured from the E! Networks to become LATV's president and chief operating officer. "That live element allows us to create a community on-air."
Perhaps the surest sign that bilingual and English-language TV are here to stay can be summed up in two words: "Ugly Betty."
Last season, ABC scored a prime time hit with its remake of the Colombian comic telenovela about a young Latina woman trying to make her way in the brutal Manhattan fashion world.
The English-language show, which stars the Honduran-American actress America Ferrera, doesn't trumpet itself as "ethnic programming." Instead, it treats Latino bilingual biculturalism as a simple fact of life, and implies that assimilation (in the character of Betty) is inevitable, though not without a few painful bumps along the way.
Although Latinos aren't yet represented on network television in proportion to their numbers, it seems likely that in coming years more big-league entertainment players will gravitate toward a demographic that, though still young, finally appears to be coming of age.
"Latino culture is today mainstream," says Si TV's Schwimmer, "and will become even more so over time."