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Move is music to their ears

The Latin Grammys' shift to Univision should boost ratings and the international audience, insiders say.

November 02, 2005|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Nothing nullifies a pop culture trend in the United States like being dumped by a major TV network. So when CBS dropped the Latin Grammy Awards from its lineup earlier this year, it might have appeared to casual viewers that the 5-year-old Grammy spinoff was headed to oblivion.

Ratings had nose-dived for the annual Latin music showcase, so there were no peeps of protest when it was bumped from CBS' fall schedule. In the end, the bold experiment in bicultural broadcasting failed to attract the wider audience it sought and lost the Latino base audience it thought it had.

For most English-speaking Americans, the show and the music simply fell off the radar, unnoticed and unlamented.

Is the Latin music community, therefore, licking its wounds and heading into Thursday's sixth-annual awards ceremony with its collective head bowed? In fact, just the opposite seems to be the case.

Many Latino recording artists, producers and label executives say CBS' decision is the best thing that could have happened to the awards program, which honors music in 43 categories from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking communities throughout the world.

This year, the ceremony moves to Univision, the country's No. 1 Spanish-language network, which claims to reach 77% of all U.S. television households. The L.A. affiliate is KMEX. For the first time since it was launched at Staples Center in 2000, the show will be produced in Spanish primarily by Latinos and for Latinos, with little concern about who else may tune in.

Many in the Latin music world expect the move to improve ratings and boost the international audience through Univision's licensing of the show to channels throughout the Spanish-speaking world. They're also hoping to avoid the awkward -- in some cases offensive -- emphasis in previous years on pairing Latin artists with non-Latin celebrities and requiring all participants to speak English.

"Univision is the best channel to air the Latin Grammy Awards, because it will be given a higher priority," said Juanes, a Colombian singer-songwriter and multiple Grammy and Latin Grammy winner. "In the end, the show will be seen by more people." Univision programs frequently dominate the top 10 of the local Nielsen TV ratings; during the summer, it was the fifth most-watched TV network in Los Angeles, averaging 3 1/2 million viewers.

Producer Emilio Estefan was a key figure in creating the Latin awards within the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammy Awards. The Latin Grammys, Estefan recalls, were launched in an atmosphere of celebration for the crossover success and potential of artists such as Ricky Martin and Shakira, many groomed in his own Miami production house. But the show never found its audience on CBS.

"The Latino didn't identify with the telecast because the music was always watered down," said Estefan, a Latin Grammy trustee and husband of singer Gloria Estefan, who performed on the premiere telecast. "The first year was great for the Latin Grammys. After that, we were losing our identity -- and the very reason for having a Latin Grammy in the first place."

The awards were launched on the cusp of the so-called Latin Explosion, a wave of popularity that carried Latin artists to the top of the U.S. pop charts with hits such as Martin's "Livin' la Vida Loca." At the time, the country seemed to be ushering in a new era in pop culture as national magazines featured cover stories about the Latin boom.

Producers of the Latin Grammy debut rounded up almost every well-known Latino name at the time -- from actors Jimmy Smits and Andy Garcia to singers Shakira and Christina Aguilera. Jennifer Lopez presented an award to Carlos Santana. Meanwhile, Martin joined Estefan and singer Celia Cruz for a tribute to the late Tito Puente.

But the Latin Explosion soon fizzled, and with it the crossover cachet of the Latin Grammys. With no new hit acts to shake their bon-bons on English-language television, the show simply ran out of recognizable Latino names. The Latin Grammy Awards never regained the mainstream appeal -- nor the ratings -- of that first show, which drew 7.5 million viewers (compared with 28 million for the regular Grammys earlier that year). Last year's show drew just 3.3 million viewers.

"It became a strange animal," said veteran manager Fernan Martinez, who has guided the careers of major stars such as Juanes and singer Julio Iglesias, a pioneer of Latin pop crossover in the 1980s. "It wasn't commercial for either of the two markets, the Hispanic nor the North American."

Under Michael Greene, the former head of NARAS, the Latin Grammys were conceived as a vehicle to showcase Latin music for the general public. Reached by e-mail, Greene declined to comment on whether he considered the experiment in cross-cultural programming to be a failure.

Others were not so reticent.

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