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Latin Grammys Make Downbeat Showing

Pop Music* The awards program's dismal ratings on CBS raise the question of whether a televised ceremony can survive.


Onstage, the short history of the Latin Grammys has been defined by some sublime performances and a spirit of cultural exploration. Offstage, however, the life of the show has been turbulent, with political protests and the disappointment of a canceled broadcast in 2001.

Now add another grim note--the third annual Latin Grammys.

Preliminary ratings reports show that Wednesday night's broadcast on CBS turned in a dismal showing, drawing an average of 4 million viewers. That's a 45% drop from the audience for the show's inaugural broadcast in 2000--or about a sixth of the U.S. audience for the regular Grammy Awards.

The audience for Wednesday's show also declined steadily throughout the two-hour broadcast and left CBS a distant fourth among the networks in the prime-time race for the night.

The contract between CBS and the Grammy organization gives the network the option each year to broadcast the Latin Grammys and, though no decision has been made for 2003, network executives insist they view it as a long-term franchise. That may be, but within the Grammy community there were whispers in recent days that the Latin music ceremony needed big numbers this year to sustain it as a separate entity.

The cancellation of the second annual show--it was scheduled for Sept. 11 last year and was scrapped in the wake of the terrorist attacks that day--cost producers at least $2 million and delayed by a year the plan for the Latin Grammys to reach financial independence from the parent Grammy organization.

"It's make or break this year," one key former Grammy official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If the ratings aren't through the roof, I doubt you will ever see this show again."

Countering that point of view is the value of the show to CBS as far as ad revenues and long-term marketing. Many corporations have ad budgets earmarked for forums that specifically target Latino audiences, so despite meager ratings, the Latin Grammys remain lucrative for CBS. There is also the long-run demographic value of a show geared to attract the nation's burgeoning Latino community, as well as other fans of a wide-ranging music scene that has gained footing in the U.S. mainstream.

"There's tremendous demographic tailwind, this trend of the growing Latino population in the U.S.," said Gordon Hodge, a media analyst with Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco.

"Even if [the Latin Grammy show] is not a short-term success, it seems to have a lot of long-range potential."

Garth Fundis, chairman of the board of trustees for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, dismissed outright the chances that CBS will not be home to the Latin Grammys, and he said that the presence of the main Grammys show on the network added more security to its future.

"I think there's a relationship with CBS," Fundis said. "And there's a relationship between this show and our show being on CBS. [The organizers of] the Latin Grammys have been very excited about the support they've gotten from CBS and the genuine interest."

The inaugural telecast of the Latin Grammy Awards in Sept. 2000 failed to generate much tune-in on a national basis but did perform well in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. It finished that week at No. 47 in the Nielsen rankings of prime-time television shows. Its audience averaged 7.5 million, a third of the audience generated by televised awards galas such as, say, the Golden Globes. The second annual Latin Grammys never made it to the air.

This year's edition of the show arrived Wednesday with less promotional advertising on CBS than in the previous two years. The show also had fewer marketing alliances and arrived without the U.S. pop culture heat that surrounded Latin music and Latin-heritage performers in 2000, when the show debuted with innate timeliness.

Jack Sussman, CBS network senior vice president for specials, said in the hours before the Wednesday night broadcast that "the ebb and flow" of music tastes have not diminished the show's luster.

CBS values "high-quality programming and diversity," and the Latin Grammys provide both, Sussman said. Indeed, the major networks have all come under fire in recent years for a lack of multicultural representations in their programming, which may make the Latin Grammys worth more than numbers on a chart would indicate.

And now there is competition on the horizon: MTV is launching its first-ever Latin American Music Awards, Oct. 24 in Miami. It will be shown in 22 countries in Latin America and will air in some abridged form in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

CBS' Sussman sizes up the Latin Grammys with a long view.

"We would not have gone into this without the expectation that we would be creating another annual franchise," Sussman said. "You do take these things year by year and you've got to be successful, but our goal all along has been to create an annual franchise."

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