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Making The Jump To Public Broadcasting

Luca Bentivoglio shares his insights into the presentation of Latinos in television


June 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Luca Bentivoglio has been around U.S. Hispanic television from the industry's embryonic stage.

That's going back to the days when giant Univisión was a peewee called Spanish International Network Television.

Two decades later, Bentivoglio has switched from commercial to public television after vice-president posts at both Univisión and Telemundo, and a stint in his native Venezuela to launch Warner Brothers cable in Latin America.

He is now executive director of Los Angeles-based Latino Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit organization chaired by actor/activist Edward James Olmos that distributes about $600,000 a year in grants for Hispanic-themed films. The money is provided by LPB's parent, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Since it was founded in 1998, LPB has partially funded more than 40 productions that have aired on PBS stations around the country.

This year a dozen programs are slated, ranging from Blue Diner, a movie about a Puerto Rican woman in Boston who mysteriously loses her ability to speak Spanish, to Soldados: Chicanos in Vietnam, a documentary about Mexican-American soldiers, to The New Americans, a dramatic series that explores the lives of immigrants and refugees.

The Herald sat down with Bentivoglio on a recent humid afternoon in Miami Beach, shortly before a reception to launch LPB's latest production, Visiones: Latino Art and Culture by Héctor Galán.

After playing a leading part in shaping Spanish-language television, Bentivoglio sees his current role as broadening the range of Hispanic programming and developing new outlets for it.

Q: Why is an organization like LPB needed?

A: It's to ensure that a voice for Latinos exists in television. There is a mandate from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to increase the visibility of minorities on PBS and on television in general. We're part of the National Minority Consortium, which includes blacks, Asians and Native Americans.

Q: How does it work?

A: We have an open call every year for projects with a Latino theme by independent producers. It's fine also to be a non-Latino. We keep it open. We tell producers to come up with stories that are unique, original and compelling.

This year we received 133 applications, and we'll give grants to about 10 percent of them. The amounts range from $5,000 to $100,000, which isn't enough to fund a whole project. But once you get seed money from us, it opens the doors to other funding.

Q: Do you think Hispanics are more visible in television today?

A: [There have] been some inroads, but it still doesn't reflect the reality of the country, of daily life. Even CSI: Miami. How many Latinos are there? One, I think. That's not the reality of Miami. Look around.

Non-Latino producers are very entrenched in their own neighborhoods, where only the gardeners and maids are Latino. Not to diminish Latino gardeners and maids, but you have to dig a little deeper.

Friends. Has a Latino ever gone into that coffee shop? Kingpin. At least it was a lot of work for Latino actors, that's how it's generally viewed by Latinos in Hollywood, but can we come up with a little more interesting subject?

If I were a commercial producer, I would mix it up more. I see from my kids' friends, they're Asian, black, Latino. That's the reality.

Q: Do you see more diversity from Hollywood?

A: You know, there are such incredible stories out there, waiting to be told. Uplifting stories, stories of courage. I've seen all kinds of stories. But where are they? Are we only developing Chasing Papi? The best Latino films still come from Latin America, not the U.S. There have been a few here: Selena, Stand and Deliver.

At LPB, we have a lot of material. There are great stories for film or commercial television. Anyone can come in and browse. Take [Cuban salsa queen] La Lupe. She has all the elements of a great film, a Marilyn Monroe story, drugs, the death. But [non-Latino producers] are not curious enough to reach out.

Q: Do you think that labeling productions by Hispanics as ''Latino films'' perhaps turns off potential audiences?

A: That's an interesting question. It's possible. That's why Robert Rodriguez is so successful -- he didn't say Spykids is a Latino movie, but it was clearly about a Latino family.

Sometimes it's an advantage to be pigeonholed because in such a large market, you can be an expert. Some of our filmmakers want to cross over into the general market, some make a very good living from being Latino filmmakers.

Q: What do you think of Spanish-language television today?

A: In 1982, we had more community-driven programming, public service announcements like ''Read a Book,'' ''Go Vote.'' I remember Joaquín Blaya [now president of Radio Unica] used to come on with an editorial on issues important to the Latino community. All that has disappeared. Now it's all how sensationalistic will we get to gain a ratings point.

I know American Idol works, and there's a young market you have to go after, but audiences are more sophisticated than you think. You can bring in something with a little more heart, a little more depth.

In [general-market] TV, you have American Idol, but you also have West Wing, and some very good cop shows. It's a little more of two worlds, they mix it up more. I don't see that in Spanish-language TV. Once in a while, you get something like Betty La Fea, which was funny and well done.

Q: Which arena do you prefer?

A: I always enjoy what I do. But the quality of discourse with these guys [LPB]. I remember in commercial television, it was all about ratings, the ideas were pretty simple. The discussions were not intellectual, if you will. Here it's a little more in depth. For me, it's been a great learning experience.

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