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The Associated Press
Telemundo Coaches 'Neutral' Spanish Accent
By MICHAEL MELIA
February 16, 2005
NEW YORK (AP) - Soap opera fans swoon over Michel Brown's blue eyes and teen-idol looks, but executives at the Telemundo network say there is a more subtle aspect to the telenovela star's appeal: his unaccented Spanish.
Brown's delivery, carefully coached to conceal his singsong cadence as a native Argentine, is part of a new policy at the Spanish-language network aimed at increasing viewership in the lucrative Hispanic American market, where there as many accents as there are Spanish-speaking countries.
"I had to learn to shorten my vowels and keep my voice from going up and down," Brown said in an interview from Colombia, where the telenovela "Te Voy a Ensenar a Querer," or "Learning to Love," is filmed. "They wanted a universal, completely plain Spanish."
The neutral Spanish has no real-world equivalent, though observers say it resembles a combination of highbrow accents from Mexico and Cuba, two countries with large immigrant populations in the United States. The lead dialogue coach at the NBC-owned network, actress Adriana Barraza, is a native of Mexico.
Miami-based Telemundo officials attribute the policy, instituted 18 months ago, to some recent success in catching up to Univision Communications Inc., which has long-dominated U.S. Spanish-language television by importing content from Mexican colossus Televisa and other foreign networks.
Telemundo, which once dubbed novelas from Brazil into Spanish, now produces many of its programs with "aspirational" themes aimed at the 40 million people in the U.S. Hispanic market, coveted by advertisers as the world's wealthiest Spanish speakers.
"We're trying to be television neutral -- I am fanatical about it personally," said Telemundo President James McNamara, who likened the campaign to making it easier for an American to watch a movie from Scotland. "I want to make sure that when we put effort into our production, we don't create obstacles."
One viewer, Luis Pichardo, said he and his family prefer Telemundo, even though some of its programs lack big-budget polish. While neither network offers the lilting tones of his native Dominican Republic, he said the Mexican accents on Univision can become tiresome.
"When it's all Mexican, I don't like it, and my kids don't always understand it," said Pichardo, 35, a clothing store owner in New York.
The emergence of neutral Spanish on U.S. airwaves suggests to some a moment of arrival for U.S. Hispanics -- the rise of a national ethnic identity no longer tied to individual countries of origin.
"It is a widespread trend that is quite significant because it says much about how Latinos in the U.S. are consolidating their own identity," said Ilan Stavans, a professor of Spanish at Amherst College in Massachusetts. "Television is a lightning rod for other aspects of the pan-Latino individual."
The universal Spanish, which dilutes recognizable elements of national accents, also involves sacrifices. Words that vary in meaning from one region to another are often dropped and some actors even have to change their sentence structure -- no small imposition for actors who might see their country's Spanish as the purest form.
But Brown, for one, said he doesn't take it personally.
"The culture and language, every actor has that. It's something you carry inside," he said. The rewards, he added, are worth the effort.
"You can have a Cuban actor and an Argentine playing brothers, set in any location. It lets you pull off something marvelous."
According to telenovela scholar Tomas Lopez-Pumarejo, the network's policy reflects a standardization that emerged over the last 15 years at journalism and communication schools, particularly in Puerto Rico and Mexico.
"There is more or less a coherent way of speaking Spanish, a consensus on a way people should talk," said Lopez-Pumarejo, a professor at Brooklyn College.
Many cultural critics, however, argue that more is lost than gained by the neutral Spanish. Some say it threatens cultural diversity by reducing the array of Spanish voices on the air.
Most Telemundo and Univision programs are made abroad with Latin American actors, and New York University professor Arlene Davila said the neutral accent represents a "reverse cultural imperialism" by upholding a linguistic ideal from outside the United States, while making no effort to capture the way the language is spoken inside the country.
"U.S. Hispanics are a second-tier audience twice over, both among the major U.S. networks and the Spanish networks, which go back to Latin America," said Davila, author of the book "Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People."
Others, however, say a baseline Spanish is thoroughly American.
Jorge Ramos, a news anchor for Univision, said he learned early in his U.S. career to neutralize his Mexican accent so he could appeal to an audience of immigrants from different regions. But Ramos -- perhaps the best-known Spanish-language journalist in the country -- said no amount of practice will ever fully conceal his origins.
"As hard as I try," he said, "there is always a sentence, a word, that would immediately let them know I'm Mexican."