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TV's First Latino Family Drama Downsizes to a Home on PBS

April 30, 2001|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One year after filmmaker Gregory Nava submitted a pilot to CBS with hopes that it would become the first Latino family drama in the history of network television, the show's odyssey has ended at the smaller, lower-budget PBS network.

A formal announcement about the 13-episode deal is expected later this week.

"It took a long time," Nava said. "It's never been done before."

The production history of "American Family," a series about a Latino family in East L.A., is a relief map of the rough terrain in Hollywood for nonwhite programming.

For years, Hollywood executives insisted their prime-time schedules, which consisted mostly of shows without largely minority casts, were selected for their quality. The executives maintained they never specifically intended to exclude minorities, pointing out their minority programs designed to foster greater involvement in the networks' shows. Meanwhile, a few prominent minority artists had managed to secure development deals at studios and networks.

One of those artist was Nava, who had burst on the scene with a 1984 film about a Guatemalan brother and sister who journeyed to the United States. "El Norte" earned him, among other laurels, an Academy Award nomination.

News that Nava had turned his development deal into a go-ahead to film an hourlong pilot was viewed with terrific optimism by activists. He cast well-known Latino actors like Edward James Olmos, Raquel Welch and Esai Morales. And he shot the program last spring in East L.A.

But in mid-May, when CBS announced its new prime-time lineup, Nava and his team were devastated. "American Family" had not been selected.

"We would have had--automatically--a much larger audience to get the show out to, and we would have had more marketing money and a bigger push," lamented executive producer Robert Greenblatt.

CBS president Leslie Moonves was clear. He had passed on the show, but in an unusual move, he gave Nava permission to shop the pilot elsewhere. Nava launched into talks with PBS, where he received an enthusiastic reaction from its new president.

"Pat Mitchell had just picked up the reins at PBS, and she wanted to create television for the real American public, and not just acquisitions from England," said "American Family" producer Barbara Martinez-Jitner.

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The only problem, of course, was money. PBS has nowhere near the budget that the general networks do for production, programming or promotions.

"We cut the budget significantly," Greenblatt said. "Gregory went through the budget line by line and did every trick we could come up with. People are taking cuts in salaries across the board--actors and writers. Greg is a child of independent filmmaking, so he knows how to do this really well."

As it stands now, PBS and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting are the principal funders of "American Family." It will be distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution. And, after a discussion between Moonves and Mitchell a few weeks ago, CBS "donated" the pilot to PBS. It remains unclear if CBS can list the donated pilot as a tax write-off or if CBS will get a courtesy credit at the end of the first program.

The pilot will air as-is in October, just as PBS wraps up its Hispanic Heritage month programming. The pilot will be followed by 12 new episodes co-produced by Nava's company, El Norte Productions, and KCET/Hollywood, the production arm of KCET, the West Coast flagship of PBS.

In all, PBS executives see it as a great, prepackaged prime-time show for the channel.

"We have to be opportunistic," said Al Jerome, president and chief executive of KCET. "Where we see a program that has been developed and that we think should be on the schedule, we should pursue it."

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Nava said he hopes PBS will be seen as a boutique showcase for "American Family," where viewers would develop a loyalty to his show as HBO audiences across the country have fallen in love with "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City."

"Clearly, you can have an impact with shows that are not getting the same Nielsen numbers that the network shows get," Nava said. "But they're really good TV."

But there are still a few details that haven't been nailed down for the fall launch. In the year since the first hour of "American Family" was filmed, some actors committed to other projects. It is unclear, for example, how Morales will juggle his role with his new job on ABC's hit prime-time show, "NYPD Blue."

For Morales, who had begun to fade into the background after several years of portraying stereotypical Latinos in movies such as "La Bamba," the ABC exposure on a well-regarded show is crucial. His manager on Friday said the actor would be available to make appearances on "American Family" but that he was now a series regular on "NYPD Blue."

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