I’m wondering what could possibly be going on in the mind of Jerry Perenchio, the 197th richest man in America, an Italian-American Republican who gave a stunning $500,000 to various Republicans in 1996 alone, and who controls Univision, the Spanish-language network that dominates the airwaves in many immigrant households here.
I’m wondering because the breathtakingly arrogant Perenchio almost never gives press interviews despite his role as one of the most powerful media tycoons in California. He is a well-known hedonist who made his early fortune as a partner of Norman Lear and built his wife a $5-million private golf course on a Malibu bluff, and who is now getting even richer by feeding Southern California’s Mexican-American population a steady diet of the dumbest, cheapest, most prurient TV programming imaginable.
But we are not allowed to ask Jerry why.
Last year, to prove how ethnic and caring he is, Jerry hired former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros as his front man. Cisneros, as the new president of Univision, immediately moved to L.A. and ensconced himself in an exclusive, guarded, gated, lily-white enclave nestled above Bel-Air, and began acting as Perenchio’s yes-man.
Thus my question to Jerry, if he ever decides to grace us with his thoughts, is: Is Univision your way of “keeping the Mexicans down”?
Since Lord on High Perenchio doesn’t talk to the media, I called a few of the most respected critical thinkers in the city’s Latino media and political circles, and was not at all surprised to find wide-ranging criticism of Perenchio, Univision, and its inexcusable broadcast fare, 75 percent of which is produced on the ultra-cheap by second-rate foreign studios in South America, Mexico, and Central America. “People believe they should be loyal to Univision because it’s Latino, and that’s pathetic.”
“Not only is Univision just plain crappy,” says one of the city’s most media-savvy Latino executives, “but when it comes to Latino teenagers and viewers under age 34, it’s a real disservice. In fact, it’s so bad that not very many of us believe Univision’s Nielsen numbers for those age groups.”
Alex Nogales, chairman of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, says Univision has long resisted producing quality programming. His group forced the network to add the award-winning Spanish version of Sesame Street, Plaza Sesamo, a few years ago by threatening to complain to the FCC. “Univision is just cheap programming from south of the border,” says Nogales. “The danger is they keep people stupid by feeding them something so irrelevant to their lives.”
Gregory Rodriguez, an increasingly influential writer and researcher associated with Pepperdine University, says, “I am really worried that a network that has monopoly power, almost 80 percent of the Spanish-speaking market, is going so completely unscrutinized. If this were Murdoch or Tisch, people would be freaking out that Perenchio does not speak to the press.”
Instead of “blaxploitation,” Univision has managed to invent “mexploitation,” assembling a hideous collection of shows that include a painful-to-watch Spanish version of Hee-Haw and infamous bodice-ripping telenovas which are so filled with low-brow bad sex that a teenage friend of Rodriguez’s calls Univision “the Porno Channel.”
According to Forbes, hip American Latinos are beginning to defect as Univision plays to the older, Spanish-bound audience with shows featuring farting cowboys, big-titted women in distress, and an endless parade of seemingly low-IQ brown characters. The Latino media executive to whom I spoke last week told me Univision was deeply embarrassed recently when they made a full-court-press presentation to attract the Levi Strauss & Co. as an advertiser and the Levi’s representative “told Univision that Levi’s won’t buy any ads because they’re all such rotten programs.”
This is not to suggest that, while Univision’s foreign programming appears to have been made by children, the Los Angeles-produced shows are up to par. Locally produced KMEX Channel 34 News has come a long way, specializing in important local stories that all seven of L.A.’s horrendous English-language news stations idiotically ignore. But KMEX still openly wallows in one-sided and highly biased coverage of “Latino” issues, such as its fawning over unimpressive schools superintendent Ruben Zacarias and the station’s obvious opposition to the English for the Children ballot measure, Proposition 227.
A recent in-house promo on KMEX — -not, mind you, a paid political ad — -intoned: “187, 209, and 227 — -they are not simply numbers, they are measures that limit the education of your children, they put our children’s health at risk, and they take away our right to work.”
At any normal network, this sort of blatant editorializing by a news station would be met with demands for equal time from the other side — -for example, from the 58% percent of Latinos who support Prop. 227, which would do away with California’s failing bilingual education system. But Univision is allowed to freely pursue its throwback political agenda. Says Rodriguez: “We’re really talking about the point at which advocacy becomes bias.”
The bias at Univision has blinded it to how Latinos in L.A. really live. Rodriguez recently released a study showing that Latinos will integrate into American culture within one or two generations and — -although they will retain their bilingual heritage — -are fast switching to English. The study so shocked the snoozing moguls at nearly all-Spanish Univision that they launched their own study.
It’s nothing new, of course, that powerful, rich, annoying TV execs insist upon spoon-feeding the public at a level far below their intelligence and tastes. Just look at the complete crap being showered upon us by Les Moonves at CBS, (George and Leo, The Closer) and Jamie Tarses at ABC (virtually everything but NYPD Blue). But Perenchio and Cisneros have a greater responsibility to rise above the vapidness, since they could dramatically influence the development of Los Angeles itself, by influencing an entire generation of newly arrived Latinos.
Clearly, the fastidiously manicured Perenchio and the elitist Texan pretender Cisneros just don’t get it, and money is the reason. As Alex Nogales notes, “Univision has had a near monopoly on what is, to them, the foreign soil of the U.S. When you see the kind of money these guys are making you can get very, very angry.”
It is difficult to imagine that Cisneros — so steeped in the ways of Washington spin-doctoring that telling the truth is a somewhat foreign notion — will summon the courage needed to convince Perenchio that money isn’t everything. (Cisneros, after asking me to fax him some questions, didn’t call back.) Univision went public last year and the stock has soared from $21 per share to $37 and Perenchio’s net worth of $750 million has soared accordingly.
Nogales says he has talked with Cisneros about Univision’s future and both agreed that Southern California’s Latino community is moving away from Spanish and towards English at a fairly rapid pace. “Henry Cisneros at least agrees with this privately,” says Nogales. “He sees a trend toward English, and if you want to be real you have to accept this.”
It is curious that Perenchio, one of L.A.’s biggest anonymous philanthropists, is apparently convinced that he can simply buy off or scare off potential critics of the all-Spanish, all-tacky format. The network’s executives and employees in L.A. are widely known for telephoning Latino figures who criticize the network, demanding to know how they could do such a thing. The buy-offs are even more blatant.
Just last month, Univision co-sponsored with the L.A. Times a half-hour TV special called The Power of the Vote, a supposedly informational show that some viewers found condescending. Perenchio’s cozy — and eyebrow-raising — new relationship with the Times helps explain why the newspaper has not, and never will, publish any hard-hitting articles about Univision or its demeaning content. In fact, the Times hasn’t breathed a word about Forbes’s negative critique of Univision in March, which revealed that Univision this season lost six percent of its young female viewers, 26 percent of its younger men, and 14 percent of its older men.
A lot of the city’s leading Latinos are hoping that Sony’s recent purchase of Telemundo will create competition and will force Univision to wake up. Manny Gonzalez, marketing manager at La Opinion, says that even Univision’s attempts to appeal to a young audience badly miss the mark with corny foreign-produced rock shows. Gonzalez, who keeps an eye on the burgeoning Spanish rock scene in L.A., says, “the rock music crowd in L.A. thinks Univision’s rock music shows Control and Onda Max are cheesy and filled with plastic artists who are in good standing with Mexico’s huge network, Televisa.”
It’s so bad, Gonzalez notes, that “if ABC tomorrow came out with a quality program with Latino actors or plots they’d get the kind of attention NBC got with Cosby, and then Univision would be forced to react.”
The whole Univision fiasco got me to thinking about how badly TV lagged in showing women in the work force, blacks not under arrest, and gays without swishy affectations. It is ironic that Perenchio, Cisneros, and company can get away with the same sort of discriminatory and narrow depictions under the guise that they are somehow “of the people.” One leading Latino media figure says Perenchio and Cisneros “have everybody kow-towing to Univision as some sort of Latino icon. People believe they should be loyal to Univision because it’s Latino, and that’s pathetic.”
That is pathetic. And so is the specter of a mega-millionaire Republican who trots out a figurehead like Henry Cisneros to keep the heat off an embarrassment like Univision.