From left, Alan Tacher, Karla Martinez, Raul Gonzalez and Johnny Lozada are co-hosts of Univision’s “Despierta America,” a morning news and variety show.

Taimy Alvarez • Sun Sentinel,

Co-hosts Sherlyn Gonzalez and Raul Gonzalez danced during a segment of “Despierta America” at the Univision studio in Miami.

Taimy Alvarez • Sun Sentinel,

Networks take note: Univision's morning show is capturing big ratings

  • Article by: Meg James
  • Los Angeles Times
  • July 12, 2013 - 6:39 PM

On the set of Univision’s live morning show, the hosts don goofy wigs to sing and perform outlandish skits, while a Chihuahua named Honey Berry scampers underfoot.

“She almost got stepped on this morning,” a Univision executive said as the dog, which has its own Twitter account, disappeared behind sound equipment.

Univision’s zany “Despierta America” has experienced a Cuban coffee-like jolt in the ratings. Ratings for the four-hour daily news and variety show, whose name means “Wake Up America,” have jumped 28 percent compared with last season, boosted by younger viewers coveted by major broadcast networks.

“If you are going to watch TV in the morning, you want to wake up to something that makes you laugh and feel good,” said Gloria Constanza, chief contact strategist for the advertising agency D’Expósito & Partners. “ ‘Despierta’s’ format is so friendly, people feel like it is inviting them in.”

Morning shows are big business and can be a network’s most profitable show. Last year, morning programs on broadcast and cable TV raked in a combined $1.4 billion in ad revenue, according to Kantar Media.

But fortunes have been shifting. NBC’s “Today” lost its No. 1 perch to rival ABC’s “Good Morning America” last year amid the behind-the-scenes drama at NBC and the exit of Ann Curry. The show is down 12 percent in viewers compared with last season, while “Good Morning America” is up 8 percent and “CBS This Morning” has climbed 11 percent.

Advertising revenue from “Despierta America” shot up 52 percent to $163 million in 2012, according to Kantar Media. This year, the Spanish-language show is expected to capture even more, and it’s helping the network boost its overall ad sales nearly 17 percent during the industry’s annual sales bazaar.

“ ‘Despierta’ is totally different from how the other networks program their morning shows,” said Lia Silkworth, senior vice president of Tapestry, a Chicago ad agency. “It is more lively — it feels like a party. And its growth shows the importance of connecting with viewers and being culturally relevant.”

No caffeine needed

The vibe is “Good Morning America” meets “The Carol Burnett Show.” On a recent morning, the hosts spray-painted a male colleague’s hair green to celebrate a Mexican soccer team.

“You don’t need coffee in the morning with this show,” talent manager Emilio Estefan, husband of singer Gloria Estefan, said after being on the show.

In the past year, trying to increase their exposure with Latino audiences, A-list stars have trooped to the Miami set, among them Mark Wahlberg, Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx and Halle Berry (she was so smitten with the Chihuahua, then named Honey, that the dog was renamed Honey Berry).

“The big stars don’t always speak Spanish, but they do like the fun of the show,” said Karla Martinez, one of the hosts.

The show’s growth spurt came after Univision Communications Inc. Chief Executive Randy Falco, a former top NBC executive, felt the show had stalled and was not doing enough to tap its revenue potential.

He installed a new executive producer. Then last fall, Univision brought in Alberto Ciurana, a top executive from Mexico’s dominant entertainment company, Grupo Televisa, to be Univision’s chief programmer.

“During my first meeting with Randy in New York, he told me, ‘We need to fix “Despierta,” ’ ” Ciurana recalled in an interview. “It has been a big priority — and we needed to do a lot.”

Extreme makeover

The pacing changed. Segments were shortened. The sleek European-looking white-and-lavender set was replaced by bright red, gold, tan and even fuchsia furniture.

“It was too cold, it was not reflective of our Hispanic community,” Ciurana said. “We are a colorful community, and now we have a lot of warmth and colors.”

The cast also got a makeover. Alan Tacher was brought over from “Hoy,” Televisa’s top morning program from Mexico City. He joined two other recent additions: Johnny Lozada, who in the 1980s was a member of the boy band Menudo; and Ana Patricia Gonzalez, a beauty pageant winner from Mexico.

Two veterans stayed on. Martinez joined the network nearly 18 years ago as a news correspondent and landed a spot on the morning show in 2006.

The show’s longest serving host is Raul Gonzalez, a Venezuelan who came to the United States 19 years ago and joined “Despierta” in 2002. He created a sketch comedy character, Dona Meche, a loud-mouthed Colombian housekeeper known for flirting campily when Hollywood actors appear on the show.

“The new cast has chemistry, and they connect with the audience in a humble and genuine way,” Constanza said. “And they share their own personal stories. It feels like a family.”

Tapestry’s Silkworth said it will be interesting to see whether “Despierta America” is a wake-up call for English-language networks that might borrow some of the show’s elements in an effort to chase the increasingly important Latino audience.

“This might be the future of morning TV,” she said.

© 2018 Star Tribune