Fusion Sets Its Sights on a Multicultural Generation
Cindy Karp for The New York Times
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: October 25, 2013
MIAMI — Since 1986, Jorge Ramos has anchored the Univision network’s 6:30 p.m. news broadcast, a vital source of information for the nation’s 50 million-plus Spanish speakers. But this week, his routine will change in a way that could have profound consequences not just for him but also for the American media landscape.
Cindy Karp for The New York Times
At 5 p.m., Mr. Ramos will host a new hourlong English-language public-affairs program called “America With Jorge Ramos,” the highest-profile offering of a new cable network called Fusion, a venture of Univision and ABC. He will then walk a few steps into an adjacent studio, put on a tie and prepare to deliver the day’s news in Spanish, just as he always has.
“Everything is new,” Mr. Ramos, 55, said after a run-through this month for “America” at the vast newsroom and studio complex that Univision, flush with money from ratings in some categories that now surpass those of the four big English-language networks, has just finished near the airport here. “New language, new format, new studio, new lighting.”
In essence, Fusion can be seen as Univision’s response to the same demographic changes that are upending American politics and advertising. Latinos are the biggest ethnic minority in the United States, expected to reach 25 percent of the population by 2035. But with immigration down since the economic crisis of 2008, American-born Hispanics, who are English dominant, now represent the biggest chunk of that growth.
Initially, Fusion’s target audience was those young Hispanics, who constitute 20 percent of their age group. But after more research, Fusion’s management decided to aim for the entire millennial generation.
“We found that good content for Hispanic millennials is good content for any millennial,” Isaac Lee, Fusion’s Colombian-born chief executive and the president for news at Univision, said in an interview in his newsroom office. “You cannot treat young Hispanics as Hispanics. They want to be part of one conversation in one room. They don’t want to be ghettoized.”
In its effort to reach that coveted audience, Fusion has gone on something of a hiring binge, snatching up young bilingual and bicultural Hispanic talent. Alicia Menendez, a Cuban-American lately of The Huffington Post, has been given the 6:30 p.m. slot, and at 10, León Krauze, who began his career as a sports radio reporter in Mexico City and is now an anchor at KMEX, Univision’s Los Angeles affiliate, will host a show called “Open Source.”
Both Ms. Menendez and Mr. Krauze come from families known to Hispanics: Her father is Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, his the historian Enrique Krauze, perhaps Mexico’s most prominent public intellectual. But in a bet on the multiculturalism said to be second nature to millennials, Fusion has also recruited talent from outside the Latino orbit.
A program called “DNA,” for example, will be hosted by the musician and political activist of that nickname, Derrick Ashong, who was born in Ghana, raised in the Middle East and New Jersey, educated at Harvard and most recently hosted a program called “The Stream” for Al Jazeera English. And Yannis Pappas, a Greek-American comedian from Brooklyn, will be joining a Venezuelan and a Brazilian as hosts of the two-hour “Morning Show.”
Fusion’s strongest selling point, however, is Mr. Ramos, whom Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News, describes as “Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow wrapped into one.” Born in Mexico City, Mr. Ramos began his career as a radio reporter there, left in 1983 after chafing at political restrictions on his work, then worked at KMEX before moving east and emerging as the dominant figure in Spanish-language media in the United States. In 2008 he became an American citizen.
In addition to being co-anchor of “Noticiero Univision,” Mr. Ramos is the host of a Sunday-morning public affairs program, “Al Punto,” that focuses on issues of particular interest to him, most notably immigration. He also writes a newspaper column and is the author of nine books, including “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”
At a time when the figure of the network anchor seems diminished, just like the audience for the nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC, Mr. Ramos stands out as an exception. So does his style: In contrast to his English-language counterparts, but in keeping with a certain Latin American tradition, his personal position on issues like immigration and scandals within the Roman Catholic Church — is often quite clear.
“Jorge Ramos enjoys enormous respect and credibility among his viewers, who feel a close connection with him,” said Armando Correa, the editor of People en Español magazine. “They don’t see him as a mask reading a teleprompter. But he’s more than a journalist. He’s also a celebrity, one of the most beloved by our readers. No other anchor has this power of communication at the emotional level.”
During the interview, conducted at his request in English, which he speaks fluently though with an accent, Mr. Ramos acknowledged that “America” will take him out of his comfort zone. Slim and graying with a determined, earnest manner, he cast the new venture as a battle for relevancy in the face of generational shifts.
“I have to reinvent myself to reach that market,” he said, referring to millions of young Hispanics who know his name but not his work. “These are kids who meet me and never say, ‘I watch your newscast.’ They say, ‘My mom and dad watch you,’ or ‘My grandparents watch you.’ “
Because of the growing importance of Latino voters, Univision is now an obligatory stop for candidates from both parties. To reach those voters, “you have to talk to us,” Mr. Ramos said. But he worries that Univision’s journalism does not resonate in the larger national conversation, and cited the network’s exclusion from the 2012 presidential debates as an example.
“It is incredibly frustrating to depend on translation to be relevant in this country,” he said. “Every single day, we have great stories, and nobody knows we are doing it, unless you speak Spanish.” With Fusion, no translation is necessary. “Language won’t be an excuse anymore not to pay attention to us,” he said.
Yet analysts caution that broadcasting in English does not guarantee success. The challenges start with persuading cable systems to carry Fusion and give it a good channel position, said Alan B. Albarran, director of the Center for Spanish Language Media at the University of North Texas.
“It sounds good on paper,” he said. “But can all these things be executed? And how long is it going to take? History tells us they don’t build an audience overnight. In some cases, it takes years, especially in the multichannel universe we are in. I think it’s going to be a slow, uphill battle, even for two companies with deep pockets.”
Mr. Correa said Fusion would be a test for all Spanish-language media. “So far, creating a product in English for Hispanics has not worked well, not as a magazine and not on TV,” he said. “My point is that if you are an English-dominant Hispanic, you have a lot of options. So if Fusion is going to work, and I hope it does, it has to have a different voice and take sides, have an opinion. If not, if it’s going to be impartial, then I’ll just watch CNN.”
Mr. Lee acknowledged the network’s practical challenges but said that Univision was counting on the muscle of the Walt Disney Company, the parent of ABC, to help it gain access to cable systems. Besides, Disney is aware of the potential of the Hispanic market, having developed stars like Selena Gomez (via the Disney Channel), Eva Longoria and Sofia Vergara (both on ABC). “They know how the future looks, and they get it,” he added.
Mr. Sherwood declined to discuss how much Disney was investing, saying only that “this network and service is going to start small and build over five years.” Initially, Fusion will be available to around 20 million cable subscribers, he said, a figure that he said is expected to rise to 60 million. (By comparison, CNN and Fox News are each in around 100 million households.) Some big systems, like Cablevision, Charter and Cox, will carry Fusion from the start, and some, like Time Warner, will not.
But in a cable news landscape where CNN, Fox, MSNBC and others already jostle, how does Fusion distinguish itself from the pack? In interviews here with on-camera staffers, producers and executives, all talked of the importance of infusing programming with humor — not just a sports comedy show to be called “Sports Talkers” but other offerings as well.
If that sounds like stealing a page from the Jon Stewart playbook, it is. Billy Kimball, who began his career writing for HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News” and has also written for “Saturday Night Live,” will be Fusion’s chief programming officer, and David Javerbaum, the former head writer and producer of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” has also been brought on board as an executive producer.
“News as defined by young people is something very different from what we do,” Mr. Sherwood said. “They lump all nonfiction into a category called news,” he said, and expect providers of information to “bring that irreverent lens” to content.
Mr. Ramos is well aware that young viewers, Hispanic or otherwise, may not respond. Asked if it might not be too early for a network like Fusion, he agreed that this was a risk, but added: “The other risk is that we might be too late. The problem is that maybe they are not watching television anymore.” Nevertheless, he seems convinced that time — and numbers — are on his and Fusion’s side.
“All the talk of many years about the sleeping giant, well, he’s well awake and running now,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll be able to interview the first Hispanic president of the United States. That’s what’s coming, and I have to be part of that transformation.”