Features

May/June 2012 The Anchor

Forget Rachel, Bill, Anderson, and Sean. The broadcaster who will most determine the 2012 elections is Jorge Ramos.

By Laura M. Colarusso

Standing at five foot seven with a slight frame, Ramos doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure as he walks onto the set of Noticiero Univision, the network’s flagship nightly news program. He slips in, largely unnoticed until he sits down at the anchor desk and adjusts his tie. About five minutes before going live, he and his co-anchor, María Elena Salinas, quickly compare notes and then turn to their computers. After more than two decades of working together, the two colleagues waste few words in the hurried moments leading up to the show.

The broadcast begins with an investigation into accusations that officials at an airline-maintenance company bribed government officials in Mexico and Panama. Then the show covers a shooting at a baseball game in Saltillo, Mexico. Only then do the anchors transition to Rick Santorum’s primary victories in Alabama and Mississippi.

During the commercial break, Ramos makes a point of coming over to me to explain why they chose to lead with corruption in Mexico instead of the election results. “We are constantly balancing domestic and international stories that cover the home countries of our viewers,” he says. “If we don’t include these stories, they wouldn’t watch us. They could go someplace else.”

This focus on issues important to Latinos has created journalism that is not only distinct from what’s shown on English-language broadcasts, but also quite profitable. In the past year and a half, while many TV news organizations have been cutting staff to deal with shrinking audiences and decreasing advertising revenue, Univision’s news department has been expanding, adding investigative and documentary units. By the end of this year, Univision Communications will add two new national cable channels, one of which will be a twenty-four-hour news network. Noticiero Univision’s 6:30 p.m. broadcast has about 2 million viewers in the United States alone, making it the most-watched Spanish-language newscast in the country. The program, which is filmed in Doral, Florida, just west of Miami, recently traded in its old wood-paneled set for a sleek, white, state-of-the-art studio with concrete walls and a 180-square-foot monitor behind the anchors’ desk.

This year, Univision finished work on a 32,000-square-foot studio at its South Florida location. Since the company bought the property in the late 1980s, the network’s footprint there has quadrupled, with the addition, over the years, of new studios, offices, and satellite dish arrays to meet the growing demand for more original programming. When the network first arrived, there was one modest structure—a former Allstate insurance office—and nothing else.

Univision’s beginnings trace back to 1961, when an American-born businessman named Rene Anselmo convinced the owner of Mexico’s largest television network, Televisa, that the United States was an untapped market for Spanish-language TV. Anselmo’s proposition was simple: he and a group of investors would buy a few local U.S. TV stations, starting in San Antonio, Los Angeles, and New York, and then Televisa would provide its usual Mexican programming. The new company was called Spanish International Network, or SIN.

The venture—the first Spanish-language network in the country—struggled at first. Even though there were about 6.7 million Hispanics living in America at the time, the stations had trouble luring advertisers. Nielsen didn’t measure ratings for the new market, so there was no way of knowing how many households SIN was reaching. At first, the network survived because Televisa provided its programming for only a nominal fee. But SIN executives soon realized that they needed to adjust their business model if they wanted to have any hope of eventually seizing a larger market. So the plan changed: instead of being a Mexican television network aired in the U.S., SIN would be a U.S. network in Spanish that addressed the particular needs of Hispanics in America. They would still air the telenovelas from Mexico, but they would also produce original content and cover local news. By 1981, the new strategy was in full swing. The company limped along financially, bringing in limited ad revenue with some early experiments in product placement on their new shows.

Jorge Ramos moved from Mexico City to the United States in January 1983. The previous year, he had resigned from his first real job as an on-air reporter at Televisa after being censored—a not-uncommon experience at the time in the Mexican press, which was in many ways beholden to the government. Ramos began searching for a way out of Mexico. He briefly entertained the thought of crossing the border illegally, but didn’t want to limit his ability to work in America. When he won admission to UCLA’s extension school—and secured a student visa—he sold his car, emptied his savings account, and flew to Los Angeles. “I still remember the day I arrived,” says Ramos. “It was just like in the movies.”

He barely spoke English, but to say that Ramos made the best of his circumstances is an understatement. His swift rise in television news began a year to the day after he arrived in this country, when he filed his first story as a correspondent for Canal 34, SIN’s Los Angeles station. Within months he was anchoring the local morning show. By January 1986, he had moved to Miami to take over the national morning show, Mundo Latino. Finally, later that year, at the age of twenty-eight, Ramos became the anchor of Noticiero SIN. (A former Univision executive told me that Ramos looked so young on camera that they used to paint gray highlights onto his temples to make him seem older.) Not long after that, following a change of ownership and a strong push to rebrand itself through even more original programming, the network was renamed Univision.

After a little less than four years in the United States, Ramos held the premier spot in Spanish-language news. He had gone from working at a movie theater in central Los Angeles to covering corruption in Mexico, the civil war in El Salvador, the Persian Gulf War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the early 1990s, Univision was a truly national network, with more than a dozen local stations. It was becoming a dominant force in Latino culture in the United States, thanks to its original programming and the simple fact that it was the first network to broadcast in Spanish. Close to 2 million Latinos were watching Univision during prime time by 1992; Nielsen was finally measuring Spanish-language viewership rates, leading to a sudden, long-awaited explosion in advertising revenue for the network. Ramos was landing interviews with world leaders like Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez, and Fidel Castro. But Univision’s place in the broader American political landscape was still marginal. Even though the number of Hispanics in America had more than tripled, to 22 million, Univision reporters still had difficulty getting big-name politicians and newsmakers for interviews. “They just didn’t know who we were,” Salinas says. “They just didn’t understand the concept of why, if we were broadcasting in Spanish, we would want an interview with someone in English.”

Laura M. Colarusso is a reporter at Newsweek and the Daily Beast. She has previously reported for the Boston Globe, New Jersey Monthly , and the Newark Star-Ledger.

Comments

  • Mikhail on May 08, 2012 8:38 AM:

    Impressive article, and I greatly enjoyed it. It's nice to learn something new about the socio-political landscape.

  • Peter on May 09, 2012 10:38 PM:

    Very interesting article. The Latino vote will clearly have a major impact on the 2012 Presidential election particularly in the swing states. Unless, of course, the Republicans success in disenfranchising too many Latinos.

  • Oilime on May 12, 2012 10:42 AM:

    This story falls for the two most predominant fallacies about Hispanics/Latinos in the United States.

    1. Hispanics are homogeneous. They're not, it's a very fractured ethnicity among races, nationalities, geographies and generations. A good example is how an older Cuban from New Jersey would vote as opposed to a compatriot in Miami.

    2. Univision is perfect to cater to Hispanics/Latinos. As a former employee, I can tell you the stats are quite underwhelming. There's a strong correlation between lack of integration and low income levels and Univision viewers. Those Hispanics/Latinos with a higher income and who are more integrated and will not watch Jorge Ramos.

  • NiKolas Garza on May 12, 2012 6:50 PM:

    Ramos is an excellent Journalist. His only sin is that he strongly supports Corrupted PRI's Candidate Enrique Peña Nieto "@EPN" in the coming Mexican Presidential Elections in July. Right @joregarmosnews?

  • Rosalba Martinez on May 24, 2012 4:12 PM:

    You are right Oilime, on your two points that you mentioned. Univision now shares something in common$$ with Televisa, Televisa put money on Univision, on an interview by Carmen Aritegui to Jorge Ramos, he could not even express an authentic thought.He is not what he was at some point. The Hispanic with education in USA do not watch his crap. he is a cheap tv show!

  • 2schultz on May 24, 2012 4:21 PM:

    here is what is happening in Mexico and he does not even mention anything about it. He is supporting a EPN. this is a little part of the letter from students #132 movement in Mexico. I would say he helps manipulates the media and info.
    Mexican affairs do not start and end in bloodshed, massacres, beheadings and drug related violence. Despite the fact that it is a significant and chilling phenomenon, last week Mexican people, especially university students gave the world a lot to talk about however it seems international press is not paying attention.
    Again the national media covered the story, reducing considerably the numbers that attended and implying it might have been fostered by other parties running for elections. But the students are awake and united; all other major universities have joined the cause, as well as other members of the community demanding change. They hope to provide accurate information for voters on the elections and more than anything to try to make history. They want to challenge the powers that have kept Mexico stagnant: one of them is the media.
    and obvoulsly Jorge Ramos too

  • Bill Carrothers on May 30, 2012 10:30 AM:

    Laura M. Colarusso must be stone-cold ignorant of what happened to John McCain in the 2008 election. Nicknamed "Juan" McCain by those of us who were disgusted by his blatant Hispandering in supporting the "Just hand the Keys to this Nation to anybody who walked across the border or over-stayed their Visa Bill", (aka "True Immigration Reform"), he was resoundingly trumped in the contest for Latino votes by a whopping 35 percentage points. His enraged cursing of the incompetent advisers of his who claimed that sucking up to the "Nation of Immigrants" (rather than Nation of Americans) crowd would gain him anything other than contempt and scorn is still echoing in Arizona today.

    As for Jorge Ramos, I think the reason that I have never heard of him is that, when I watch Univision, I switch channels as soon as those magnificent cleavages and gorgeous legs of the soap-opera stars disappear. With such awesome distractions, how do Latinos manage to get so much work done?

  • Gil Jimenez on May 30, 2012 4:52 PM:

    No comment for now. Later

  • SouthAmerican on July 09, 2012 12:47 PM:

    I agree 100% with you, Oilime on May 12, 2012 10:42 AM:,
    Jorge Ramos is a bad journalist. Completely sold by the illegal immigration agenda. I don't listen to his cheap crap.