MIAMI – The long-awaited DNA exchange between ABC and Univision emerges from the test tube this month, aiming to stretch the limits of traditional network programming. The English-language television network, called Fusion, will target millennial Hispanics and their BFFs as it attempts to capitalize on a generation for which cultural fusion is the norm and digital media is king.
The network will provide something of a grab bag: a mix of hard news, commentary, sports and irreverence aimed at 16- to 30-year-olds. Sure, there will be nightly news programs, but also an animated puppet news and entertainment show by David Javerbaum, former head writer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Think Comedy Central, the hipster online magazine Vice.com, ABC and Univision, all in one.
“Not everyone will get it; and that’s sort of the point,” Univision News President and now Fusion CEO Isaac Lee wrote in a memo to staff earlier this month.
To “get” what Fusion is attempting, it helps to tour its home and meet the players:
The green and blue mood-lighting of the warehouse-turned-news hub known as Newsport suggests Miami Beach club over newsroom. Like millennials who can’t afford to move out on their own, Fusion shares the cavernous space with Spanish-language parent Univision News. Senior staff members gather for brainstorming sessions in brightly painted and glass-walled rooms overlooking the newsroom.
On a recent afternoon, Lee strode across the floor like the head of a Silicon Valley startup, sketching flow charts of Fusion’s evolution. As he talked, one millennial staffer wrestled a ping pong ball from the mouth of Chocolate, Lee’s brown Labrador. Others chimed in on the essence of the network that goes live Oct. 28.
As befits a project geared to a generation used to downloading the latest mobile update, Fusion has been beta testing in plain view. In 2011, Lee brought together a group of recent journalism school graduates to work on an English-language Tumblr for Univision. The young journalists created original news, curated stories and produced short documentaries.
Lee learned what worked (humour) and what didn’t (direct Univision translations). The approach bought him time to win over holdouts at Univision, a company that built its brand on Spanish-language affinity.
“I hate ties. They are really useless. Why do I have to have a piece of cloth hanging from my neck every day?” fumed Jorge Ramos, the silver-haired veteran Univision anchor with piercing blue eyes, one of a handful of journalists to join Fusion.
As Ramos jogged up the stairs, he yanked the offending garment out of his bag and held it up to his neck. “This is my Univision uniform,” he said, then dropped his arm and grinned, “and this is Fusion.”
Ramos, who co-hosts Univision’s popular nightly newscast with Maria Elena Salinas, will pull double duty. He frankly acknowledges his own millennial kids don’t watch his Univision newscast, or any other. He is also blunt about the limits of his native language.
“It is very frustrating many times to have a great interview on the Sunday news story, and no one (in Washington) is paying attention simply because it’s in Spanish,” he said.
Ramos doesn’t plan to dumb things down. He does plan to mention Mexico — the country sharing 2,000 miles of the United States’ southern border — almost as much as he mentions Syria. One of his first interviews is with Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who earned attention and a U.S. Department of Justice investigation for his aggressive attempts to crack down on illegal immigration.
THE FEMALE FACTOR
Alicia Menendez describes her new Fusion show as a mix of sex, money and politics.
“Yes, but most people won’t admit it,” Menendez shot back. The 30-year-old gained early exposure to politics as the daughter of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. She’s anchored programs for HuffPost Live and Sirius XM but says Fusion is the first network to speak to her generation.
Her first show: millennials’ lack of monogamy and how self-inflicted singledom affects home purchasing.
Fusion describes itself as “Championing a smart, diverse and inclusive America.” But Menendez’s show notwithstanding, when it comes to gender, Fusion resembles Silicon Valley startups more than its tagline: it’s stocked with talented women on the news floor but has virtually none on its senior creative and executive team.
ABC News President Ben Sherwood compares Fusion to the web of highways California built back in the 1950s.
“No one could understand why you would build a freeway with six lanes. But the visionaries of California knew that if you built these freeways, people would come,” he said.
Like California’s freeway system, the plan is to scale up, starting with 20 million homes and expanding to 60 million in the next few years.
It was a logical move for the Disney-owned ABC, which has no cable news counterpart and provides Fusion broad distribution through its cable and satellite contracts. It can also share news content with minimal investment. ABC has sent staff to work with Fusion on content and production, and Fusion’s vice-president of news Mark Lima came from ABC’s “Nightline.”
For Univision, Fusion poses a greater risk, but the company has the financial wherewithal to weather initial bumps. Its prime-time broadcasts ruled July sweeps ahead of the other four major networks among coveted 19-49 viewers. In Fusion, it’s looking ahead to the second- and third-generation Latinos who get their news in English. Nearly two-thirds of the 52 million Hispanics living in the U.S. are native born.
Still, the experiment hasn’t been without awkward moments. As Fusion prepared to go live, top staffers were quoted sniping about the ages of their older counterparts at Univision.
Fusion has competitors. Participant Media launched Pivot TV this summer, promoting social advocacy among millennials. Sean Combs’ new music focused Revolt TV debut’s this month.
Still, Morley Winograd, a University of Southern California fellow and author of books on media and millennials, says Fusion has the right ingredients for success and a huge potential market for advertisers.
“The two earliest cable channels specifically targeted at millennials were the ABC Family Channel and the Disney Channel,” Winograd said. “It’s not surprising then that a ‘Fusion’ of Univision and ABC decided upon Latino millennials as their market. Each side of the partnership knows a great deal about one half of that audience combination.”
Lee insists Fusion will take some time to find its footing. MSNBC took years to settle on its left-of-centre brand. Fox News Channel wasn’t the nation’s most popular cable news network out of the gate.
“Nobody’s doing what we are doing,” he said, “so there’s one way to find out what works and what doesn’t.”