El Rey’s Rodriguez Champions Diversity

Hispanics accounted for less than 3% of TV-show producers and weren’t represented at all among lead roles within the top-10 scripted network television shows, according to a recent study from the Columbia University Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Acclaimed film producer Robert Rodriguez has pledged to change that dynamic in a big way.

Rodriguez, who produced and directed the successful Spy Kids and Sin City movie franchises, is the founder and CEO of El Rey Network, a Hispanic-themed general-entertainment network. Launched in December 2013, the network — one of the new minority-owned networks selected for broad distribution by Comcast as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s conditions for the MSO’s acquisition of NBCUniversal — has already put its stamp on the Hispanic television marketplace. El Rey has two original series — From Dusk Till Dawn, based on Rodriguez’s film of the same name, and Matador, featuring Hispanics in lead acting roles and in the producer’s seat.

While the cable industry has numerous Spanish-language networks targeted to Hispanic audiences, Rodriguez’s English-language El Rey, currently in 40 million homes, hopes a mix of original series and acquired movies, documentaries and specials will reach Hispanic viewers, who watched an average of 117 hours of traditional television during the second quarter, second only to African-Americans, according to Nielsen.

Rodriguez recently spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the plight of Hispanics on television, as well as his El Rey Network and the television industry’s overall diversity efforts. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Why did you decide to launch El Rey?

Robert Rodriguez: I have a film career that’s very healthy, but the idea of creating a network where we would be able to give diverse voices to people that have been underserved or don’t have a voice was great. And it’s not just my voice on the channel; it’s for anybody who feels they can’t get into the system and they have a story to tell and nobody else is listening. That’s what El Rey is — it’s the people’s network. Instead of having this pyramid where it’s me on top and everybody else is on the bottom, you flip it around and other people become involved. That was the whole strategy and why it’s been so exciting. You have a pipeline now to millions of homes, and people are hearing more and more about it. I recently went into a bar that had El Rey on, and it looked cool, like it was new and different, so it just builds and builds. It’s our best-kept secret.

MCN: Much has been written about the lack of roles in front of and behind the camera for Hispanic actors and directors. How much of a role do you see El Rey playing in changing those numbers for the better?

RR: That’s mainly the reason I did it. Look at the statistics: Hispanics are represented in 5% of primetime shows versus what we do at El Rey, which is 50% to 60%. Another 2% of Hispanics are directors and producers. For our series Dusk Till Dawn, 60% of the directors were Hispanic. So we are really giving people a chance to learn and practice their craft, create their own stories and change the landscape.

The network itself is more reflective of the face of the country than the television networks … It’s not equal right now. Until you start to create your own networks, good luck in seeing yourself on TV. We have to change things.

MCN: How important has Comcast been in the development of El Rey?

RR: They were crucial in showing the industry that we were legit, and it gave us a foothold to build up the network. That’s how we were able to get to where we are today.

MCN: What’s the balance that you want to have regarding original content and acquired movies and series?

RR: As we build our original content up, we’re going to get better in terms of quality. As of right now if you look at our network as opposed to other startups … how many of them have the quality and quantity of original shows that we do? It’s pretty unheard of and dramatic to see how quickly we’re ramping up our original productions. As far as licensed content, we found a way to get inexpensive genre films and to repackage them in a way that makes it exciting for our audience and be on brand. So it’s not filler, it’s actually good programming.

MCN: You’ve mentioned in the past that you want El Rey to reach a broad audience even though it features Hispanic-themed content. So is El Rey a Hispanic-targeted network or a general-entertainment network?

RR: If you target to just Hispanics, then they won’t watch. They don’t want to feel like they have this one little channel in the corner; you want to feel like the whole culture — you want people to be excited about your show. You want everybody to be interested and watch Dusk Till Dawn — [the audience] doesn’t think of it as Hispanic. Take Spy Kids — most people didn’t look at it as a Hispanic family movie, but rather a family movie. Sin City is a broadly targeted movie. You want to do stuff that’s exciting to everyone, but for those who are Hispanic, the lead [for Matador] is a Hispanic actor instead of being a British or other actor. It’s cool because the action and spy stuff is great and the storytelling is great. Nobody wants to go to a movie and get beaten over the head [regarding diversity]. You just want to go to the movies and enjoy yourself.

MCN: In a year from now, what will El Rey look like?

RR: We’re going to stay on brand with shows like Matador, which opens up the network to a broader audience. We want to broaden out as much as possible but still keep our identity. We’re hoping word of mouth on these shows will help us build more awareness and eyeballs. We’ve overachieved for where we’re supposed to be right now, and the goal is to keep overachieving.

MCN: Where do you see the cable industry in terms of its diversity efforts?

RR: It’s not that significant at all. When I looked at the [Hispanic] numbers, I was shocked. At the rate they’re going, it would take 100 years for us to reach where there’s equality between the Hispanic population and representation in television. We have to jack that up, and that’s why El Rey over-delivers because it has to begin to make a change. We have to catch up, so we’ll be the dominant force in that arena for sure. I mean there aren’t many Hispanic CEOs — that’s why I am chairman and CEO. And it’s not about just hiring someone and checking a box; we over-deliver because it means something. This is important for the country … You can’t have a population that’s one in six and moving to one in three and not see themselves in the media … It’s bad and detrimental to a person’s view of self. If all you see in the media is stereotypical characters or you only see yourself in the news as a problem that needs to be solved, that does something to people, and we can’t have that.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.