León Krauze grew up in a household of Mexico City intellectuals, where soccer, pop music, literature and politics were vigorously debated and it wasn’t unusual to see a Nobel Prize winner seated at the family dinner table.
As a youth he visited Washington, D.C., and read Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” sparking a lifelong passion for U.S. politics. At 29, he published the first of six books he has written, about George W. Bush’s presidency.
“When I was just a 17-year-old kid in Mexico City, I remember, my friends went out drinking, and I stayed home and watched the Ross Perot versus Al Gore debate on NAFTA on CNN — and then went out drinking, of course,” Krauze said recently.
For the past three years, Krauze, 38, has hosted the evening newscast for Spanish-language Univision’s KMEX-TV Channel 34, a post that has made him one of the top-rated anchors, in any language, in the United States (as his half-million Twitter followers attest). Last month he launched “Open Source,” a one-hour, live evening news and entertainment show on Fusion, a new cable entertainment and news channel venture that partners the Disney/ABC television network with New York-based Univision Communications Inc., the nation’s dominant Spanish-language media company by far.
The challenges are great and the stakes high for the frisky new English-dominant channel. After initially deciding to target bilingual 18-to-34-year-old Latinos, Fusion is now aiming at the broader demographic of millennials of all ethnicities, a finicky group much desired by advertisers but wary of being patronized and manipulated with see-through marketing ploys, and that gleans most of its news from the Internet.
What’s more, Fusion will have a relatively low national profile, with initial distribution to about 20 million homes, equal to one-fifth of U.S. households with paid television subscriptions. It’s also uncertain how many of Univision’s core Spanish-speaking viewers will be tempted to test-drive Fusion.
Yet on a recent afternoon, as he showed a visitor around KMEX’s sprawling Westchester office complex, Krauze had a more urgent matter on his mind: Jennifer Lawrence, whom he describes as “my main crush, apart from my wife.”
So enamored is he of the lithesome star of “The Hunger Games” that on each Thursday of his weeknights program he’ll be making a personal plea, complete with hearts-and-flowers music and digital graphics, for Lawrence to appear on “Open Source” for an interview. “And don’t worry,” he says in his pitch. “I’m harmless. I’m married, I have three kids, so you have nothing to worry about.”
If Krauze’s personality traits — thoughtful but irreverent, analytical but playful — suggest Jon Stewart more than Edward R. Murrow, and that combination appeals to you, then you’re precisely the type of viewer coveted by Lee Isaac, the Colombia-born president of Univision News, Fusion’s newly appointed CEO and Krauze’s boss.
Humor, Lee says, is one essential component in packaging television, including news, for young viewers, along with “transparency, authenticity, having an attitude, high self-esteem,” and … cojones. It’s no coincidence that Fusion has hired David Javerbaum, former head writer and producer of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” as one of the new network’s executive producers.
Lee believes that Krauze personifies the millennial mind-set while also possessing the intellectual heft to go toe to toe with an economics professor or a major novelist. “Open Source,” Lee says, will present “Leon in the raw, with no boundaries, unplugged,” yet with “a self-deprecating humor.”
Maintaining that there are “no frivolous topics, only frivolous angles,” Krauze has interviewed politicians such as Barack Obama, Shimon Peres and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. A typical “Open Source” lineup might include a report on U.S. immigration reform, a pop-culture segment on Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez and, as the program’s website puts it, some “really weird stuff,” such as a recent piece on a Mexican town that celebrates “Day of the Martian.”
Equally crucial, Lee says, is that “Open Source” won’t pander to young Latinos and other millennials by locking them into a narrow and condescending marketing profile. He sees Krauze as part of a multicultural talent pool, including Brazilian journalist Pedro Andrade, Greek American comedian Yannis Pappas and Cuban American Alicia Menendez, formerly with the Huffington Post, that Fusion is counting on to transcend old demographic categories and appeal to young viewers on their own terms.
“If you reach Hispanic millennials, treating them like Hispanics, like in a ghetto-like approach, they’re not going to watch,” Lee says, “because they are first Americans, and they love their country, and their main language is English. But they are still Latinos, and so they love the food that their abuela makes, and they care what happens in Mexico, and they watch soccer.”
Still, attracting that audience is “easier said than done,” said Julio Rumbaut, a Miami-based media adviser. “Those assimilated viewers and users have a lot of options outside what may be Hispanic, Spanish feeds.”
To attract millennial viewers, he added, Fusion will need to create “tent-pole, aura” programs and do it quickly, because with this demographic “you don’t get a lot of second chances.” The new network’s top-profile program will be “America With Jorge Ramos,” an hour-long public affairs show hosted by the popular Univision host of that name.
By heritage as well as cultural upbringing, Krauze said, he always has had a cross-border, insider-outsider perspective on Mexico and the United States. His father, Enrique Krauze, a famous historian and one of Mexico’s most prominent public intellectuals, is a first-generation descendant of Polish immigrants. His mother is the writer-researcher Isabel Turrell, “the most well-read person I know.”
At the dinner table of his youth, Krauze said, family members were expected to present well-reasoned arguments on a variety of topics: whether Luis Miguel is actually a good singer, the relative merits of the Mexican soccer teams Club América versus Cruz Azul. “That’s what made me the man I am and the journalist I think I am,” he said. “I’m a man of universal curiosity, a perfect product, I think, of that very curious, peculiar household.”
Through his parents, Krauze also gained some unusual access. Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning man of letters, was a close friend and mentor of his father’s. “He once gave me a hand-held Atari video game for Christmas.”
When Krauze was 12, he accompanied his father on a business trip to Washington, where he met the literary lion Leon Wieseltier and had lunch with former ABC news host Ted Koppel while his father pitched a documentary project.
Koppel was skeptical that the idea would fly. But the younger Krauze piped up, “You’re wrong, that is going to work!”
“My father loved it,” Krauze said, chuckling. “And I think Koppel smiled.”
Yet Krauze, who went on to earn degrees from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education and a master’s from New York University and later worked as a newscaster in Mexican radio and television, is sensitive to the insinuation that his last name has opened doors for him. “Nothing has been given to me,” he said. “I’ve fought all my life for what I have.”
Krauze has no shortage of opinions, and he intends to share them when it furthers a story and to allow viewers to glimpse his personal life. For instance, in discussing immigration reform, he might refer to his three young sons, two of whom are U.S. citizens, while the third, who was born in Mexico, is not. (Krauze himself hopes to obtain U.S. citizenship someday.)
“My life is part of who I am, and I think that’s part of what the audience expects now, for the fourth wall to break open,” said Krauze, who for the past three years has lived on the Westside with his wife and children.
Although most Fusion programming will originate at a sparkling new Miami studio, “Open Source” will be produced out of KMEX. The format calls for a camera to track Krauze as he wraps up his KMEX newscast, shedding his jacket and tie as he bustles through corridors toward the “Open Source” studio.
That transformation, he hopes, will set the tone for what will follow every night: a U.S. show with a partly Mexican soul, a serious show that’s not afraid to clown around.
“I’m not a news presenter,” he said. “I’m not Ron Burgundy.”