Just a dash of Latino flavor accents Fusion TV’s debut

Last year, Univision and ABC set out to create the first English-language cable network custom-made for young Hispanics. Somewhere along the way, they changed their minds.

When Fusion debuts Monday evening from its new studios in Doral, the channel run by the leader in Latin media will be targeting a much broader audience: adults under 35 of all ethnic backgrounds.

“They initially started as the network for millennial Hispanics,” said Yannis Pappas, the Brooklyn comedian from a Greek family who will be one of Fusion’s morning show hosts. “Now it’s all millennials. And we’re winking at Hispanics.”

Fusion’s shift offers a look at the challenges in pursuing Hispanic consumers, perhaps the hottest target in marketing today. The network scrapped the initial Latin identity after focus groups showed young Hispanics were put off by the idea of a television channel centered on their ethnicity, said Isaac Lee, head of news at Univision and CEO of Fusion.

“We found out that Hispanic millennials do not want to be ghettoized. They don’t want content that only speaks to them,” said Lee, 42, who ran Poder magazine before joining Univision in 2010. “The only way to reach them is to provide fantastic content, and to include them.”

That realization helps explain Fusion’s grab-bag of programming, which will go out live at 6:57 p.m. with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos’ first English-language news show.

But if Ramos represents an obvious choice for Univision’s original concept, the rest of the line-up captures Fusion’s unconventional approach to news and talk: an animated satire show, comedians taking on sports, a puppet talk show, and an evening program on sex and politics. Fusion hired the former head writer from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to produce a comedy block from Fusion’s Los Angeles operation.

Fusion’s broader demographic makes for complicated marketing, since Lee and others say young Hispanics remain their primary target. “Imagine if you are doing archery,” Lee said. “The bull’s-eye, the red dot, is still an Hispanic. But the whole target is not just the red dot.”

Even if the original Latin approach by Univision didn’t prove viable, the broader focus offers an intriguing prospect for the Miami area. While an English-language channel for Hispanics would further the city’s reputation as the center of Latin media, a network pursing millennials puts Miami on the forefront of a closely watched front in the broadcasting wars.

Pivot TV launched in August to pursue millennials, with Sen. John McCain’s twenty-something daughter, Meghan, hosting a talk show, and indie favorite Joseph Gordon-Levitt contributing his interactive film project, HitRECord. Sean Combs debuted his all-music network, Revolt, earlier this month in the hope of being the new MTV for the millennial generation.

Fusion’s rollout is moving relatively slowly, with executives saying it will be available in about 20 million homes Monday night.

That’s about half the size of Pivot at its debut and far less than the 45 million homes available to Al Jazeera when it launched its U.S. network in August. Fusion’s initial reach will be small enough that it will not receive Nielsen ratings, the network said. Cable giants Comcast (which owns Univision rival Telemundo) and Time Warner haven’t signed on to carry Fusion, meaning large areas of South Florida won’t be able to see the network when it launches.

Fusion expects to triple its reach within three years, and it has the promotional muscle of ABC to help.

Last week, Fusion host Alicia Menendez co-hosted ABC’s The View, and on Monday both Good Morning America and Univision’s Despierta America (filmed in Univision’s original Doral studios) will simulcast each other’s programming to promote the Fusion launch. Ramos joined George Stephanopoulos on This Week Sunday to promote Fusion’s launch.

ABC is also airing promos of Fusion’s mascot (a giant fuzzy F) being mock-interviewed by GMA anchors, including Robin Roberts and Josh Elliott. Jim Avila, an ABC reporter who was also named Fusion’s White House correspondent, will interview President Barack Obama on Monday for a segment airing on Ramos’ show, Fusion announced Sunday.

In the division of labor, ABC has responsibility for selling Fusion to cable providers and to advertisers. ABC’s parent company, Disney, has a portfolio of channels that could fold in Fusion as those contracts come up for renewal.

Lee said Disney views Fusion as following the same path as ESPN in the 1980s: a new network bound to have a slow start, but one with significant profit potential once it finds an audience and a stride.

In creating its lineup, Fusion made its most high-profile hires in the comedy field, including former Daily Show chief David Javerbaum and Billy Kimball, who once wrote for The Simpsons. The Jim Henson Company is partnering with an animation shop behind Comedy Central’s popular Robot Chicken shorts for a half hour of “topical satire” using stop-gap cartoons.. The Harvard Sailing Team comedy troupe will host a 30-minute program called Sports Talkers, while the show No, You Shut Up features a home host discussing the news with a panel of puppets.

Executives point to Stewart’s following as proof of millennials’ affinity for comedic news. And while Fusion also has a documentary team and Pappas will be joined in the morning by Brazilian journalist Pedro Andrade and Univision correspondent Mariana Atencio, Kimball said the network wants humor infused in as much of the news programming as possible.

“That’s how you add value to news,” said Kimball, the chief programming executive for Fusion in Doral. “You’re giving people not just the information, but you’re giving some perspective, too.”

Still, Comedy Central devotes just one hour of original programming a night to current events. And humor can be a challenge in television news. Fox News gave up on its version of The Daily Show ( The½ Hour News Hour) after six months, and comedian D.L. Hughley lasted about that long on CNN after what one media critic called “a show featuring painfully awkward interviews.”

“It will be interesting to see if ABC and Univision get it right,” said Morley Winograd, co-author of the book Millennial Makeover. “That ability to use humor to break through pretense is why it might actually work for them.”

The stakes are high in the Miami area, long the U.S. capital of Spanish-language media.

Univision secured about $11 million in tax credits and cash from Florida and Miami-Dade County for its Fusion headquarters, which shares space with the Spanish-language network’s news division. To secure the incentives, Univision and Fusion committed to investing an additional $247 million in the venture.

Univision has not disclosed a construction expense for the “Newsport,” but in a conference call with analysts Thursday, the company said the tax credits alone wiped out the cost of building it. Univision pledged to eventually create about 350 jobs with the new facility (Fusion currently employs about 200), and will receive cash subsidies once the added payroll slots are confirmed.

Soundproofed to keep out the roar of jets from the Miami International Airport flight pattern above, the complex has a two-story newsroom with open ceilings. Spanning 150,000 square feet, it may be the largest in television news, Fusion executives said. A matrix of adjustable light panels and glass-walled meeting rooms overlooks the desks below, with Univision on one side and Fusion on the other. .

On a recent afternoon, Fusion news editor Maritza Puello broke into an impromptu dance with a Univision assignment editor when J Alvarez’s La Pregunta began playing loudly from her computer.

Later Puello, who came from a New York television station, explained Fusion’s audience: “It’s your diverse, inclusive America,” she said. “It has what we’ll call a little Hispanic seasoning. We’ll call it the flavor.”

Menéndez, a popular online host for whom Fusion hired to anchor a lifestyle show, said she appreciated Fusion’s broadening its marketing approach beyond customized content for Hispanics. She recalls her annoyance at Latin-themed women’s magazines peppering English headlines with Spanish words — like “what does your abuela think about your novio?”

“That drives me crazy,” she said. “They are singling me out.”

With its Monday launch, Fusion will test whether it can master the balancing act of pursuing Hispanic viewers without targeting them directly. With about 20 percent of the millennial audience Hispanic, Lee said a broad young-person approach will inevitably snag the fast-growing Hispanic demographic that Univision already dominates with its Spanish-language programming.

The strategy has promise, but may be too reliant on an interest in news and lifestyle programming from a demographic more inclined to entertainment, said Scott Hess, a vice president at the Spark media firm who is finishing up a research study titled The Five Faces of Millennials on how the under-35 generation consumes media.

“I question the programming mix,” Hess said, noting Ramos’ starring role and the heavy presence of current-events discussion. “I think that kind of viewing is what you watch when you’re 30 to 35. I’m not sure there are enough millennials there yet.”

But Hess added that while he sees a risk for failure, he also predicts a huge payoff if Fusion gets it right. “They’re reading the insight correctly, and they’re taking a chance on it,” he said. “I like that a lot.”

Ramos, who at 55 will be Fusion’s senior on-air personality, said he sees Fusion as Miami’s latest contribution the Latin crossover movement.

“It started with music with Gloria and Emilio,” he said of the Miami-based Estefans. Then politics, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the Castro brothers of Texas all eyed as up-and-coming national players. “Now it’s happening in the media.”

After correctly introducing millennial expert Scott Hess, an earlier version of this story misspelled “Hess” in subsequent references. This version was corrected to fix the error.