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Spanish-language TV has a major audience and big stars. So why the separate awards?

After receiving his Emmy, Don Francisco, the popular host of Univision's variety show Sábado Gigante, was whisked to the Blue Room where photographers and journalists waited. As Francisco stood before the paparazzi's flashing cameras, I asked him how he was going to celebrate.

"By drinking," he replied. "Starting now. With wine."

There was a bar next to the press pit by the red carpet, but in the Blue Room only non-alcoholic drinks were being served. "Do you think you can bring some wine back here?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. "How many bottles do you guys need?"

The press corps and the public-relations handlers laughed politely. "Well, I could use three bottles myself ..." I said, but before Francisco could respond a handler stepped in and presented him with an SBC gift bag containing the new Razor digital phone. Francisco asked if it came with a service contract and the SBC official laughed as the photographers captured the presentation. This wasn't the time to talk about service plans; this was a photo-op.

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Honorees of the June 3 Emmys en Español included Rosa Salvaje star Veronica Castro, Sábado Gigante host Don Francisco, sports commentator Andres Cantor (shouting his famous "Goooaaaal!"), and news anchor Jorge Ramos.

Francisco was one of six Spanish-television superstars that received an honorary award at the inaugural Emmys en Español Friday, June 3, at San Antonio's McNay Art Museum. For a few hours the city joined the ranks of Hollywood and Cannes, with the hustle of paparazzi and celebrities dressed to the nines walking down the red carpet.

The reigning queen of Spanish-language television, Veronica Castro, was also presented with an honorary Emmy. Castro has been a mainstay in Hispanic television for three decades but won the hearts of many viewers as the lead in the 1987 soap Rosa Salvaje. As a testament to her popularity, the Rosa Salvaje theme song, which she sang, became a mega-hit throughout the Latin world.

Other winners included Univision's news anchor Jorge Ramos, who has been scoring higher ratings than English-language TV counterparts such as CBS' Bob Schieffer in the much-sought-after markets of Los Angeles, Miami, and Houston. Two stars from the Telemundo network picked up Emmys: Maria Celeste Arraras, host of the current-affairs show Al Rojo Vivo; and the voice of soccer in America, sports commentator Andres Cantor, famous for his euphoric cry, "GOOOOAAAAL!"

I used to think that the Spanish-language channels were the weirdest on television. When I moved to the U.S. from Australia 10 years ago, I couldn't afford cable so I tuned in via the antennae. I picked up Univision as it was broadcasting a comedy sketch show on which adults acted like toddlers while models with deep cleavage delivered the straight lines. Sometimes, scenes ended with everybody dancing. It was loud and chaotic, a heavy dose of culture shock that left me discombobulated.

Over time, the shock of the new faded. Now, when I visit Australia, Aussie TV seems bizarre. Instead of Lassie, Australia has Skippy the Bush Kangaroo - a real kangaroo heroine. It's one thing to have a collie romping around the countryside saving people but watching a kangaroo do it is mind-boggling. Australia's counterpart to the long-running Sábado Gigante is Hey Hey It's Saturday, which ran for 28 years. Instead of caliente models escorting the host, the Aussie show featured a pink puppet named Ozzy Ostrich.

The truth is that television is essentially the same everywhere. Broadcasters all over the world follow the same formula of soaps, talk shows, reality TV, and sitcoms. Take away the language barrier and Telemundo begins to look a lot like CBS.

The Emmys en Español was no different than other entertainment award shows. Celebrities stroll down the red carpet, pose for the cameras, and hype their latest projects while corporate sponsorship looms in the background. After all, award shows are more than awards; they are free publicity. Latin singing sensation Shalim arrived at the Emmys with his fiancée, former Miss Universe Amelia Vega. They are the latest Hispanic celebrity power couple and media darlings, and reporters asked if they had set a wedding date. Vega said no but told reporters that she is currently working on her first album, which didn't really surprise anyone since these days diversifying into the popular music market is a rite of passage for most young celebrities. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if Shalim and Vega make a reality-TV show about their marriage, just like Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey.

Being a celebrity is, of course, hard work. Aside from fielding hackneyed questions, you can never show up to an award ceremony in a bad mood. Positive coverage is crucial. Francisco was serious about drinking wine, and after posing with his Emmy he wanted to return to his dinner table in the auditorium. But the reporters weren't finished with him. Several cornered Francisco and asked Mr. Saturday Night to pose with each reporter-turned-fan. When the third journalist blocked his path and asked for a snapshot, Francisco rolled his eyes but quickly regained his composure and pleasantly agreed. The wine would have to wait; the media had to be worked, even though the event was in his honor.

It doesn't matter what the ethnic market is, the mechanics are the same. This raises the question why have a separate TV award show for the Spanish language market. Aren't these luminaries good enough to receive an award at the regular Emmys? Fifteen million viewers tune in to watch Maria Celeste each night and Veronica Castro's star power extends into Spain and even China. Susan Lucci's following pales in comparison. Emmys en Español comes across as the affirmative action of award shows, a Band-Aid measure to pump up the numbers of Hispanic Emmy winners. The Emmys will be far more inclusive and honest when it nominates Don Francisco alongside Regis Philbin.

By Ricardo Perin



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