WHEN Alex Pels was growing up in Argentina in the 1970s and '80s, he recalls, "there was not really a lot of choices in terms of how you got access to pop culture."
"Once in a blue moon somebody would bring, like, a Rolling Stone [magazine] that somebody had brought from the United States, and it might be 8 months old, but for you it was the latest thing," says Pels, general manager of the Universal City-based mun2 television network. "So you had to keep your antenna open."
What a difference a couple decades has made. Today, Pels suggests, the challenge for young Latinos in the United States isn't to keep their antennae open (or "up," as the case may be), but to keep them from being overloaded by a deluge of new cultural options. "It's not about being defined by a particular style" Pels says, "it's more about being empowered to create your own menu."
Those entrees are lavishly on display in Los Angeles, which is steadily emerging as the creative hub of a new type of bilingual and English-language television aimed at young Latinos who feel equally at home in both the Spanish- and English-speaking worlds.
For years, the city has been locked in a rivalry with Miami and New York to be the epicenter of Latino television production (and Latino pop culture in general). But lately the balance seems to have tipped toward L.A.
Two events in recent weeks underscore L.A.'s central role in catering to young bilingual Latino viewers who want to stay connected to their parents' and grandparents' cultural heritage, but are as likely these days to be tuning into "Grey's Anatomy" as a Spanish-language telenovela.
Last month, mun2 (pronounced moon-dose), which is part of the Telemundo-NBC Universal-General Electric conglomerate, unveiled a new 16,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar production studio complex smack in the middle of Universal CityWalk, completing a months-long relocation from its corporate headquarters in Miami.
Mun2, which was launched as primarily a music channel in October 2001 and struggled initially to define its identity, also has introduced a slew of new programs this year in an attempt to diversify its image and broaden its appeal to a younger demographic -- one that advertisers pay the most to reach.
Mun2's new shows include the film-centric "Have U Cine?" and "The Chicas Project," a 30-minute reality-based show that teams twentysomethings Crash, a Mexican American L.A. neo-punk, and Yasmin, a Dominican from New York who's big into hip-hop and reggaeton. The gals good-naturedly work out their cultural differences while being thrown into challenging situations (e.g. helping a preschool teacher keep order with 20 frenetic kids).
Reaction, so far, has been positive: Mun2's ratings have doubled and in some cases tripled across its broadcast schedule. The network also has begun producing documentaries on issues of interest to its target 18- to 34-year-old demographic, such as last year's special on young Latinos serving in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq.
Also last month, another L.A.-based bilingual network elevated its profile: The 6-year-old cable network LATV reached beyond its 5-million-watt KJLA studios in West Los Angeles and officially converted into a national broadcaster via digital satellite multicast.
LATV already has affiliates in a number of prime Latino markets, including Miami, Houston and Las Vegas and is adding more at a rapid clip. "We always intended for LATV to be a national network," says Danny Crowe, LATV's president and co-founder.
It's still far from clear whether bilingual or English-language programming represents the future of Latino television.
Though dozens of new competitors nip at its heels, the L.A.-based Spanish-language Univision network continues to dominate Latino TV, with a total audience three times the size of second-place Telemundo. It offers viewers a predictable, but immensely popular, diet consisting largely of telenovelas imported from Mexico's giant Televisa network. And it continues to do well with young viewers.
But bilingual and English-language programming gradually seem to be moving out of the "niche" marketing category and into the general market.
National corporations that once advertised only in Spanish now are targeting younger Latinos with English and Spanglish ads. As that has occurred, Los Angeles has solidified its stature as what Crowe calls "the golden egg of bilingual television."
The reason, he says, "is simply the raw numbers."