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Nickelodeon's Bilingual Cartoon 'Dora' Is A Hit


July 2, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

When Nickelodeon started three shows with Latino themes over the last year, officials said they wanted to reflect the world children lived in. All the shows, the first of their kind for the cable network, have done well but the big hit features as its star a 7-year-old Hispanic girl who speaks both English and Spanish and lives in a fantasy world – that of cartoons.

In less than a year, the show, "Dora the Explorer," an animated series, has become the top-rated show for preschoolers, ages 2 to 5, in commercial television. The instant popularity of the show, which is shown weekday mornings on Nickelodeon and Saturday mornings on CBS, led the network, a unit of Viacom, to start a "Dora" line of toys and apparel last month, much sooner than it usually takes to develop a market for such products.

As a result, "Dora" may become as profitable as two other Nickelodeon hit shows, "Rugrats" and "Blue's Clues," each with about $1 billion in product sales a year, network executives say.

"Dora" is a rarity in television, a show with a Hispanic lead character. Her success raises the question of how much of a breakthrough Hispanic-oriented programming can make on mainstream television in the face of continued network skittishness; an industry with few Hispanic writers, producers and executives; and a push by the Spanish-language networks to capture the bilingual market.

It also underscores the notion that the best hope so far for such programming may lie in the children's market because children are a more diverse group than the adult population. Of people under 18, 31 percent belong to a group other than non- Hispanic white, the 2000 census showed, compared with 23 percent for adults.

Latinos in particular have a higher proportion of young people than the overall population – 35 percent are younger than 18, compared with 26 percent for the country as a whole. The Hispanic population grew more than 60 percent in the last decade, to 35 million, or 12.5 percent of the overall population.

Last year, the major broadcast networks undertook efforts to integrate prime-time shows under pressure from minority groups, but so far have come up with few Latino characters. While television has increased the casting of black actors, a coalition of Hispanic, Asian and Native American groups recently gave the four major networks grades of C to D – for diversity in prime time.

Groups like the National Council of La Raza recognize some progress – ensemble casts for new situation comedies and dramas now routinely include people of color, said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for the group. Paula Madison, NBC's vice president for diversity, says the days of all-white ensembles, like "Friends" and "Frasier" are over, as far as new shows are concerned.

But some network officials and advertising agencies said that appealing to the Latino audience posed special challenges because it was split between viewers who spoke mostly Spanish and those who spoke mostly English. In some markets, the two Spanish-language networks, Univision Communications and Telemundo, capture more than half of Hispanic viewers.

And in trying to diversify characters without sacrificing viewers, some networks are going the route of ensemble casts that include people of color, rather than mostly black or mostly Hispanic shows.

Whatever the reason, Ms. Navarrete argued, the result is a dearth of dramas and comedy programs in English that portray the Hispanic experience and that have Latino characters who are not secondary characters or cast as maids.

"Nickelodeon is breaking the myth that non-Latinos won't watch a program about Latinos," she said. "These are shows that are appealing to all kids."

There is, of course, the question of how much of the success of shows intended for a cable niche audience, and a children's audience at that, could be translated to prime-time television for adults. "Resurrection Boulevard," a Latin-themed drama on Showtime, also a unit of Viacom, now in its second season, has had only modest ratings so far.

"`There's no relationship between the two marketplaces," said Jonathan Goldmacher, a senior vice president for the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. "Kids love learning. When things are different that's very attractive to them. It's very empowering for kids to walk around the house saying `amigo.' "

But Nickelodeon executives attribute the general appeal of "Dora" and the network's two other Latin- themed shows – the live-action series "The Brothers Garcia," a Mexican-American family drama-comedy, and "Taina," about a Puerto Rican teenager attending a performing arts school in Manhattan – to a formula they say should work for any programming: good characters and universal story lines.

What ethnicity adds to the mix, said Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon, is different kinds of characters and creative sparks. "There are great stories that haven't been told," he said.

The creators, Chris Gifford, Eric Weiner and Valerie Walsh, gave Dora no distinct nationality, so that more viewers identify with her, but she has a Hispanic look, uses Spanish words like "vamonos" ("let's go"), and has adventures with a decidedly pan-Latin flavor. In one episode, for instance, Dora and her monkey sidekick, Boots, help a "coqui," a small frog from Puerto Rico, return to its native island so it can sing again.

As with "Blue's Clues," viewers play along by answering questions posed by the characters and helping them solve problems.

The debut of "Dora the Explorer" last August was the highest rated premiere on Nick Jr., the programming block for preschoolers, in the network's history, bolstered by her appearance online on the Nick Jr. Web site beforehand. The show averages about 1.2 million viewers between ages 2 to 5, about triple the audience of its closest competitor, improving ratings 20 percent over the previous year, the network said.

At CBS, the Nick Jr. package that includes "Dora" and has been shown on Saturday mornings since last September has increased its 2-to-5 audience 51 percent.

"Dora the Explorer" videos, the first franchise products to come out last month, have stayed on the video top-10 sellers' list. Other products – play sets, dolls, backpacks, T-shirts – are scheduled to appear in department stores in the fall and next year.

Nickelodeon officials said the network's other shows with Hispanic themes helped anchor their most watched programming blocks on Saturday and Sunday. Earlier this year, the Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant chain, owned by CEC Entertainment, started running a bilingual commercial during the shows, marking the first time Nickelodeon has agreed to run bilingual ads.

Only 5 percent to 15 percent of the overall audience for the three shows is Latino. Nickelodeon officials say its other shows with multicultural casting or predominantly black and Asian casts have also attracted a broad audience.

Prime time, however, provides a different landscape. An analysis of the 2000-2001 season by Children Now, a group in California that advocates the interests of children, found that despite the broadcast networks' stated commitment to diversity, the season was only slightly more diverse than in the previous years. Representation of Latinos actually decreased, the group said, and most diversity was achieved by the inclusion of nonrecurring characters.

Even if there is a long way to go, major broadcast network executives said in interviews that they were committed to integrating television and that there would be more minorities on prime time this year.

"The focus is definitely on," said Mitsy Wilson, senior vice president for diversity development for Fox, a unit of the News Corporation. "How we go about it may be different but we're all marching to the same beat."

Some advertisers said they had made diversity an expectation for both ad agencies and the networks.

"Gradually the networks will continue to move in that direction because we are," said Maria Molina, a spokeswoman with Procter & Gamble, which two years ago created a multicultural marketing division to step up its reach into the market.

But the competition is heating up from both ends. Trying to attract not only Spanish-speakers but also young American-born Latinos, Univision is creating a second network in January aimed at bilingual Latinos who now watch mostly television in English. Telemundo has also announced plans to restart its current cable network in September as mun2, aimed at the 13-to-34 bicultural audience.

While the new networks will still be in Spanish, they are expected to have more music, sports and other programming that crosses over well.

Univision has already added original bilingual and English-language programming to its cable operation, Galavision. And just as Nickelodeon accepted bilingual advertising this year, Galavision announced last month that it would welcome some advertising in English.

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