One reason Network TV still struggles with Hispanic viewers: There's little substitute for a common language
The New York Times has a great story looking at network TV's struggle to draw Hispanic viewers, noting that the most prominent Latina on television stars in a show which doesn't particularly excel at drawing Latino fans.
But even though Sofia Vergara seems much more popular with Anglo viewers of Modern Family than Hispanics -- and some Latinos think the character she plays is a borderline stereotype, anyway -- I think the Times overlooks a basic reason for this struggle, while recalling some of the awful stereotypes embedded in recent series such as Work It!, 2 Broke Girls and Rob!.
Thanks to many decades struggling to bring black viewers into the fold, TV networks have often hit on a simple formula for attracting fans of color: Put a mostly minority cast on the screen, and members of that group will embrace the show.
The equation worked well enough with African Americans, who are still so starved to see black characters in prominent roles, that I know people who faithfully watched NBC's super-flawed spy series Undercovers, despite hating its absurdities, because they didn't want NBC to think its experiment with two black lead characters failed because of race.
But other non-white ethnicities in TV have a more complicated relationship with characters on television; something the networks have always struggled to handle. Spanish TV unites a wide range of Hispanic ethnicities with a common language, something English-language network TV cannot duplicate, though it unfortunately encourages networks to see the Hispanic audience in monolithic terms.
So when ABC presented the sitcom George Lopez, there likely were some Hispanic people who saw Lopez, a Mexican-American, and didn't feel particularly connected to his family or story. Cubans in Florida or Puerto Ricans in New York might not feel they have much in common with Lopez -- or at least not enough to make a point of watching a sitcom he stars in.
So it's small wonder a network TV system so clueless it still deploys jokes about Puerto Ricans being good at selling drugs, also struggles to recreate a Hispanic culture onscreen vibrant enough to draw non-white viewers in the same way Spanish-language programming does.
As the Times documents, the modern diversity dynamic pools most non-white viewers in events everyone watches; popular sports and variety shows such as NFL games, American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.
Vergara is a rare example of a network sticking with a potential star of color; ABC slotted the Colombian-born beauty in two other comedies, the short-lived Hot Properties and Knights of Prosperity, before striking gold with Gloria Pritchett in Modern Family.
And even though some may be troubled by her characterization as an emotional, sexy, sometimes thickheaded Latina spitfire -- some critics even wondered if she was exaggerating her accent for the show -- Modern Family also has brought in other Latin characters connected to her, including her super-smart son Manny and his biological father (who is, I'll admit, a sexy Latin lover type who is also tremendously unreliable; another troubling Hispanic stereotype).
These days, characters of color seem to fall into two areas: either they are defined by their ethnicity, like the Mexican-American family Rob Schneider's character married into for CBS' comedy Rob or they are without ethnic character at all -- characters played by non-white actors who reflect so little of their culture, they might as well be white.
TV's toughest task is creating ethnic characters which reflect the reality of life as a non-white person in America. Sometimes, your culture is a big part of what happens in your life, sometimes it isn't and sometimes you're just not sure.
For my money, Damon Wayans character on Happy Endings, Regina King's character on Southland and Andre Braugher's character on Men of a Certain Age are great examples of handling that balance well.
My prediction: When network TV learns how to play that note in a realistic, compelling way, non-white viewers of all ethnicities will tune in a lot more.