A Mexican sitcom about a street kid.

How popular culture gets popular.
Nov. 4 2005 11:24 AM

El Chavo

The enduring popularity of a Mexican sitcom about a street kid who lives in a barrel.

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El Chavo

The appeal of El Chavo del Ocho, the most popular sitcom in the history of Mexican television, might seem mystifying. The show, which first aired in the 1970s, follows the allegedly humorous exploits of a street urchin who lives inside a barrel, played by then-fortysomething comic Roberto Gómez Bolaños. His pals, including the spoiled Quico and the crafty La Chilindrina, are similarly played by adults, who shriek inane catchphrases while bouncing around a set befitting a community theater production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The gags usually involve someone getting bonked in the head with a hammer or brick.

But 27 years after the last of its 1,300 episodes taped, El Chavo is a cable hit in the United States. Currently airing on Univision-owned Galavision, it's consistently the No. 1-rated Spanish-language cable program, often taking eight of the top 10 Nielsen slots. And in one amazing quarter last year, 48 of the top 50 Spanish-language cable shows were El Chavo repeats. ¿Por qué?

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Largely because the people who watch Spanish-language TV are often looking for a hit of nostalgia. According to a Pew Hispanic Center survey, about 75 percent of Hispanics in the United States are at least very proficient in English; for those born on American soil, the figure is over 90 percent. When watching English-language TV, these viewers favor shows like CSI, Desperate Housewives, and Lost—that is, the same fare as non-Hispanics.

So when they switch over to broadcast stations like Univision or Telemundo, or cable alternatives like Galavision, Hispanics crave the sort of programming they can't see on ABC or Fox—shows that provide a cultural fix, or at least a sweet reminder of bygone days. And that means lots of telenovelas, or melodramatic soap operas, and vintage Bolaños comedies like El Chavo and El Chapulín Colorado. (Bolaños' performance in the latter show inspired the Bumble Bee Man character on The Simpsons.) Television viewers generally look to cable for comfort programming—TNT's incessant Law & Order reruns always do well—but not nearly to the extent that Spanish-language viewers do; sports aside, the cable ratings are usually dominated by wrestling, Lifetime Original movies, and mature fare like Nip/Tuck.

But why El Chavo, rather than another 1970s sitcom? The show has the advantage of having been a hit throughout Latin America, not just in Mexico. About 60 percent of Hispanics in the United States are of Mexican descent; that means millions of viewers with roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, or Colombia crave televised nostalgia, too. Fortunately for Galavision, 1970s households in Lima or Santo Domingo were likely to be tuned into El Chavo's first run. (Dubbed reruns of the show remain such a hit in Portuguese-speaking Brazil that when the network SBT threatened in June to quit airing them after 21 years, hundreds of fans marched in protest; SBT relented.)

Strong cross-generational appeal works in El Chavo's favor, too. Because it depicts the hijinks of child characters—albeit played by adults—the show does well among grade-schoolers; it is, in fact, the No. 1-rated Spanish-language show among American viewers ages 6 to 11. Their parents, meanwhile, have no qualms about plopping Junior in front of the television for back-to-back episodes from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., familiar as they are with El Chavo's G-rated content. (At 7 p.m. sharp, however, the TV is likely switched over to Univision's flagship broadcast station, where telenovelas such as Inocente de ti dominate the prime-time Nielsens.

Univision also has a sweetheart deal with Mexican media titan Televisa, which owns the El Chavo catalog, so it has zero incentive to replace El Chavo with a new production. Televisa actually owned the forerunner to Univision, the Spanish International Network. But in 1986, Televisa was found to be in violation of the Federal Communication Commission's foreign ownership rules. It had to sell off SIN to Hallmark, which in turn sold it to Los Angeles businessman Jerrold Perenchio—who doesn't speak Spanish—in 1992. Televisa had a hand in the Perenchio purchase, ponying up $33.3 million to own 12.5 percent of the network—a low enough percentage to satisfy American regulators.

Televisa also signed a licensing agreement with Univision that, in hindsight, it wishes it could take back. Until 2017, Univision has the option to air any Televisa property it wishes, in return for royalties that are estimated to be between 12.5 percent and 15 percent of revenues. That's way below the 35 percent to 40 percent a foreign syndication deal usually calls for.

The upshot is that Univision is getting rich by airing Televisa shows like El Chavo, and Televisa is receiving a relative pittance in return. This ticks off current Televisa boss Emilio Azcárraga Jean * to no end and accounts for the increasing bitterness between the two Spanish-language media giants. Earlier this year, for example, when Perenchio named a chief operating officer unacceptable to Azcárraga Jean, Televisa immediately banned its talent from appearing on any Univision shows, thereby spoiling the Premio lo Nuestro music awards. And in August, Univision sued Televisa in Los Angeles, alleging that its partner-cum-rival was acting in bad faith; among the cited actions was Televisa's habit of revealing the surprise endings of telenovelas on its news programs, some of which air on Galavision.

"It's like a bad marriage," says Philip Remek, a media analyst in the Miami office of Guzman & Company. "They're at each other's throats, but nobody's talking divorce yet." But Televisa sure is getting aggressive. Azcárraga Jean, for example, has put out feelers regarding a switch to American citizenship, a move that would let him own U.S. broadcast properties. In the meantime, Televisa is trying to outflank Univision in the race to sell Spanish-language DVDs in the United States. It already has a massive hit with a brand that has sold more than 600,000 discs: El Chavo.

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