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A Latin taste

Uncorking a scene at its first Latin American awards, MTV and the music are big winners.

October 26, 2002|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — The Rolling Stones sent a good-natured greeting in Spanish with British accents. Shakira played guitar and belted out a scorcher without ever swiveling her hips. Hometown favorites Gloria and Emilio Estefan were nowhere in sight.

The inaugural MTV Video Music Awards Latin America, held here Thursday night at the Jackie Gleason Theater and broadcast live throughout most of the Western Hemisphere, lived up to its billing as a showcase for the unconventional. It was a night of surprises, of unexpected collaborations, of sheer celebration for a new wave of music that has captured the imagination of young people from Tijuana to Buenos Aires.

The winners almost seemed secondary. Their trophies looked less than glorious -- a thick, pink tongue. The main point of the ceremony was to declare that alternative music had come of age in Latin America and had earned the MTV imprimatur as the hip choice of today's Spanish-speaking youth. The move represents a resounding vote of confidence in a market that is often ignored in the United States or dismissed as a minority phenomenon. For some, the recognition was a long time coming.

Pioneering rock en espanol producer Gustavo Santaolalla shared the night's ebullient mood, greeting artists as they left the Art Deco theater in trendy South Beach. He had worked, often with scant commercial success, to shepherd the careers of many musicians in attendance, including Colombia's Juanes, who won for best male artist.

"For me, it's spectacular to see all this, because I had this vision 30 years ago," said the Argentine-born producer, now based in Los Angeles. "I always had imagined this moment would come, and it seems so positive that finally, after so many years, we have a celebration like this one."

Though the awards are new, MTV in Latin America is not. The music network entered the market nine years ago and has grown right along with the music. It now reaches 12 million households through programming tailored for three regions -- Mexico and the Caribbean in the north, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay in the southeast, and Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador in the southwest.

This is MTV's 11th awards show, said Antoinette Zel, president of MTV Networks Latin America, headquartered in Miami. But it's the first to air on the network worldwide in a language other than English. Eventually, organizers estimate, the show will reach 410 million households and more than 1 billion potential viewers as it airs on MTV's global network and through independent broadcasters, such as Mexico's Televisa.

"There's an understanding by all MTVs around the world that this audience, 12 to 24, is very adventurous and very risk-taking in music," Zel said Thursday before the show. "We have such a close relationship with them. We know that just by introducing good music, language aside, it will connect."

Why now? The time is right, Zel said. There are more and better videos, and more and more artists gaining popularity outside their geographic regions.

MTV's audience is by nature elite, network executives concede. It represents affluent fans who can afford satellite or cable and who have access to computers to vote for their favorite nominees on MTV's Web site. In Mexico, for example, cable reaches just 14% of TV households, Zel said. The awards show, however, will reach a much wider audience worldwide. It was carried live by MTV2 in the U.S., with a delayed feed to add English subtitles. In the press room backstage, reporters could see both versions almost side by side, highlighting the impressively quick and accurate translations.

There's no mistaking this show for the Latin Grammy Awards, launched three years ago at the height of the so-called Latin music boom in the U.S. For one, the MTV Latin awards don't try to encompass all genres or aspire to reach the mainstream U.S. audience. And the Latin Grammys, broadcast nationally in prime time, could never use the sexual, soft-porn graphics used by MTV as a play on its tongue trophy.

In any case, the MTV Latin America channels can't even be seen in the U.S. The MTV cable outlet here, called MTV Espanol, features a different set of artists, primarily those whose records are available in the U.S. and who may have much lower profiles in the southern continent.

"Latin America is a totally different world than the U.S. Hispanic market," said Jose Santillan, Latin American vice president of music and artist relations. "We may live here but we don't really see Latin American culture as it is in Latin America."

Even die-hard Latin music aficionados would be hard-pressed to identify all the MTV nominees in categories devoted to each region. But understanding regional preferences has been the key to the network's success, executives said.

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