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CNN Latino Tampa dodges Spanish-language soap operas in push to win over Hispanic market

The station hopes to upgrade by moving to a studio in downtown Tampa, perhaps the former Kress department store.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Time

The station hopes to upgrade by moving to a studio in downtown Tampa, perhaps the former Kress department store.

TAMPA — Turn on one of the few Spanish-language TV stations targeting the largest minority group in the nation and it'll look a lot like it has for most of the past decade: cheesy game shows, buffoonish slapstick, soppy telenovelas.

So Buenos Dias Latino, a CNN-affiliated Tampa morning news show, can seem like a bit of a surprise. On Friday's newscast, anchors talked national headlines and local news: Responding to the killing of a pregnant Tampa woman, an attorney spoke on camera about domestic violence.

"Hispanics are very much used to the main two stations … so it's a blessing we're able to go outside the box," said anchor Sarykarmen Rivera, who joined the morning show recently after working for a Spanish-language station in Austin, Texas. "Being live and local, in Spanish, that early in the morning, there's nothing like that here."

Filmed from a small studio in Tampa Heights, the morning show is a centerpiece of CNN Latino Tampa, which launched here six months ago as part of an ambitious nationwide bet to build a news-heavy network aimed at winning over America's exploding Hispanic market.

Covering a 45-mile radius from Sarasota to Zephyrhills, the station mixes glossy syndicated programming from the cable network's Spanish-language news outlet, CNN en Espanol, with a lineup of locally made shows ranging from news, traffic and weather to cooking, fashion and fishing.

Boosters say the young affiliate is already off to a strong start. Funded by the heir of what was once one of Ecuador's most powerful business families and overseen locally by a former account executive at Telemundo, the affiliate won a coveted low-numbered slot (Ch. 30) in Verizon's local lineup and is already pushing to expand.

But the station will face a series of challenges as it wrestles for market share with Spanish-language powerhouses Telemundo and Univision, which boast established studios, loyal viewership and pipelines to Miami's telenovela factories.

The Latin-American soap operas built off time-worn story lines — villains brought to justice; tawdry love triangles; small-town everygirls marrying millionaires — are consistent hits among Hispanic audiences, so launching a Spanish-language station without one could seem like a risk. But Marlen Abrahantes, who is leading the CNN Latino charge in Tampa and Orlando, said the station will try to carve out a niche among a new generation of young Hispanics weaned on high production values and bored with formulaic soaps.

"Our children, they were born in this country, they are used to American television, they are used to good quality and interesting things," Abrahantes said. "They don't watch the Hispanic soap operas. We want them to continue watching Hispanic TV, to see the Hispanic stories, so they can practice Spanish. But if you don't give them what they want to watch, they just go to different channels."

A successful launch among Hispanics could bring with it huge rewards. With 220,000 Hispanic TV-owning households, Tampa Bay is the 19th-largest Hispanic media market in the country. And Hispanics' place in Tampa Bay media culture is only expected to grow. This year, Hispanics made up a third of the 200,000 students in Hillsborough County schools.

That's partially why the national network, which produces eight hours a day for the CNN Latino broadcast, has hired heavy hitters like anchor Maria Elvira Salazar, whom Miami's El Nuevo Herald called "one of the most recognizable faces in Hispanic television," and produced documentaries, debate shows and news analyses for Spanish-speaking audiences.

Since launching in January, CNN Latino has expanded into cities composing a quarter of the country's Hispanic households, including in Orlando, Miami, New York, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The network has pushed to brand itself as the premiere Spanish-language broadcast for what it calls "the New America," and in a promotional "sizzle reel," a young Hispanic man says, "I wanna live the American Dream, en espanol."

Subverting the telenovela juggernaut to become the nation's premiere Spanish-language alternative won't be easy; CNN Latino's slogan, "Todo es posible" ("Everything is possible"), seems almost a jab at the task. For help spreading across the country, they have turned to small-scale broadcasters like the 25 CNN Latino employees working in a Franklin Street studio bought last year for $1.2 million.

The station features plenty of coverage of farandula, or show business, as well as sports, music and lighter fare. One of its more well-received shows is Pico-teando, which lampoons viral videos in the style of American satires like The Soup and Tosh.0.

But Abrahantes said the station will steer away from much of the trappings of standard Hispanic TV. "Telenovelas, game shows, people fighting on TV: We are not into that," she said. "We are more into things that Latinos want to know."

The station is seeking to upgrade with a move to downtown Tampa, but when and where remains a question.

Station representatives said engineers were reviewing the former Kress department store, a long-vacant behemoth where Mayor Bob Buckhorn gave his State of the City address in March, as a new headquarters. One of the CNN Latino investors, Luis Isaias, was once a partner in a proposal to build three condo towers on the site.

But the building's owner, Jeannette Jason, said CNN Latino had not met with her to discuss visiting, leasing or buying the building. Attempts to reach Isaias were not successful.

The station must also convince cable companies that it deserves a good space within their lineups, which can be kingmakers for small stations seeking a foothold among channel surfers.

A Bright House representative said Friday the provider is "constantly re-evaluating and reviewing programming opportunities," but that no agreement is yet under way.

CNN Latino boosters say it will only be a matter of time before they begin to gain visibility and, perhaps, win over a core audience. For now, they're focusing on turning out strong programming connected to real-life Hispanics — without the made-for-TV story lines.

"I don't want to see the Cinderella or Maid in Manhattan story told in four different ways," says Sari Famiglietti, a young Tampa native of Cuban parents who works as the station's marketing director. "I want Discovery Channel, Home & Garden. Where's that for us?"

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

CNN Latino Tampa dodges Spanish-language soap operas in push to win over Hispanic market 10/04/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 4, 2013 6:39pm]
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