The anticipated premiere of Jane the Virgin (CW) was as wacky and sweet as promised. Based on a Venezuelan telenovela, Jane has drawn comparisons with Ugly Betty, made evident through notable cast performances and a tendency toward camp. With its roots firmly in Spanish-language soap operas, Jane is an attempt to reach Latino viewers, while at the same time appealing to wider audiences.
Besides Jane, Cristela (ABC), and Seth MacFarlane's new animated series Bordertown (FOX), set to debut in spring of 2015, all feature Latino lead characters.
Initial buzz surrounding these shows has been positive. Gina Rodriguez's strong performance in the lead has made Jane a critical darling, and it was recently picked up for a full-season.
The premiere of Cristela, the first show created, written, and produced by a Latina, who is also the star, won its Friday time slot and increased viewership over its lead-in Last Man Standing, but is down slightly in its second-week ratings.
And although Bordertown has yet to air a single episode, the inclusion of Chicano graphic artist Lalo Alcarez as a writer has Latinos, who were initially fearful, anticipating the Texas-based comedy.
These shows represent efforts to diversify the television landscape.
Jane and Cristela are aspiring Latina professionals, living in multi-generational households with absent fathers. Neither character has achieved success. They are in the process of becoming fully enfranchised but haven't yet arrived.
The stories appear new. They are not. Where is the Latina Olivia Pope? Where is my unified upper class Mexican American family?
Worldwide success of the Columbian telenovela, Yo soy Betty, la fea indicates that Latinos aren't the only ones who enjoy a good fish out of water meets ugly duckling kind of story. So an adaptation of Juana la virgen makes a lot of sense from a network standpoint.
Betty, la fea was remade in 18 other countries and translated into more than twenty languages, including Japanese and Greek. In the U.S., Ugly Betty, starring America Ferrera, ran four seasons. Despite a loveable lead and its willingness to tackle issues such as homophobia and undocumented status, the show never quite duplicated the success of the original, which is curious given the popularity of the original and the genre.
To say Latinos like telenovelas is an understatement.
Last year, four million people tuned in to the Spanish-language network Univision for Amor Bravío, and Porque el amor manda averaged 3.4 million viewers a night. Such a sizeable audience helped Univision beat FOX, NBC, CBS, and ABC to win the coveted 18-49 and 18-34 demographics.
But as viewers, Latinos do not exist solely on a diet of telenovelas.
On average, Latinos consume 127 hours of traditional television per month or 4.2 hours per day. Compared to African Americans who watch 211 hours monthly, our viewership is rather paltry.
Additionally, Nielsen studies show that Latino viewership has a strong correlation with the primary language spoken in the home, so that principle Spanish speakers watch a majority of Spanish-language television. The converse is also true, which means that primarily English-language households constitute the majority of Latino traditional television viewership.
The decision to include a substantial amount of Spanish with subtitles in Jane will likely draw diverse Latino viewership. Wider audiences may be put off by the move. FX has tried something similar with its noirish border drama The Bridge, as did ABC with the comedy Freddy.
Bilingual programming is not the only avenue for reaching Latino audiences, who account for approximately 17 percent of the total U.S. population and have a purchasing power close to $1.2 trillion. Even though Latinos have tremendous economic power, we are woefully underrepresented in the media we love to consume, accounting for a mere 3 percent of regular characters on primetime television.
From 2000-2010, a slew of comedies and dramas prominently featuring Latinos aired, Greetings from Tucson (WB), The Brothers Garcia (Nickelodeon), Resurrection Blvd (Showtime), American Family (PBS), Skin (Fox), Kingpin (NBC), Cane (CBS), Freddy, George Lopez, and Ugly Betty (ABC). Only four lasted more than one season.
With the recent cancellations of Rob (CBS) about a man who marries into a large Mexican American Family, Saint George (FX), a gritty second sitcom effort from George Lopez, and The Bridge (FX), Latino characters now exist primarily as a part of ensemble casts, as in Modern Family (ABC) and The Strain (FX), directed by Guillermo del Toro, or have receded into the background.
We need to see greater Latino diversity on television, both in terms of genre and characters, more than simply telenovela reboots, charming virgins, and scheming maids. When we do, I'll be sure to tune in.