Fusion and the Limits to Civic Discourse on Cable TV
As the 2016 presidential debate season gets underway, U.S. Latinos have not fared particularly well. In an effort to address the “problem” of immigration, Latinos already have been framed as anchor babies, rapists, and convicts. But while Latinos have been the subjects of political rhetoric, they have not necessarily been engaged directly in civic discourses.
Enter Fusion, a joint venture between ABC News and Univision Communications. In the Hispanic television market, which typically has been associated with telenovelasand variety shows, Fusion promises to provide something more substantive by addressing topics such as immigration, the marketplace, and policy. In a joint press release, ABC News President Ben Sherwood described the vision for the new network: “Fusion will be the indispensible meeting place for English-speaking Latinos…. Our goal is for this young, vibrant, and media hungry audience to come to Fusion and be informed, entertained, and empowered.”
Despite its promise of engaging Latinos civically, Fusion’s social mission cannot be separated from its economic imperative. Like other commercial networks, Fusion is first and foremost an entrepreneurial effort and therefore must serve the practical function of generating revenue. By consciously targeting Latinos, Fusion is pursuing an audience that has become strategically important for advertisers in recent years. According to the U.S. census, Latinos account for 16 percent of the U.S. population, but that number is expected to grow significantly in coming years. To capitalize on Hispanic buying power, large global television networks, including 21st Century Fox, Disney, and Viacom, have launched networks of their own in an effort to claim an audience that historically has been lost to Spanish-language networks.
What distinguishes Fusion from its competition, however, is the decision to offer Latino-oriented programming almost exclusively in English, a strategy that deviates from those typically employed by other Hispanic networks. While Hispanic networks historically have defined the Latino audience as linguistically and culturally foreign, industry executives in recent years have turned their attention to the “new Latino,” an audience defined by its youth, heavy use of emerging technologies, biculturality, and fluency in both English and Spanish. But as television networks like Fusion increasingly target “acculturated, English-speaking Latinos,” significant questions emerge about the state of Hispanic media overall. Do these networks signal greater inclusion for Latinos in mainstream discourses or is this simply a case of old wine in new bottles? That is to say, does Fusion represent the capacity for dominant players to exploit the Hispanic market in new ways?
News with an Accent
Several months prior to its launch, Fusion publicly changed its positioning from a news network primarily for young Latinos to one that generally was intended for Millennials. Furthermore, in the months before it launched, network delegates employed a range of tropes designed to temper Fusion’s Latinness. Yannis Papis, co-host of Fusion’s The Morning Show, admitted “they initially started as the network for Hispanics…. Now it’s all Millennials, and we’re winking at Hispanics,” while Jorge Ramos, host of America had referred to his own program as “news with an accent.” News editor Maritza Puello stated that Fusion’s programming will have “what we call a little Hispanic seasoning.” Mariana Atencio, co-host of Fusion’s The Morning Show, indicated that her show will have a “Latin touch,” stating, “We may not be 100 percent white Americans, but we still identify with the mainstream.” Catherine Sullivan, senior VP of ABC News Sales, provided one of the most insightful glimpses into the network’s programming, stating, "We are winking at Hispanic, it is not overtly Hispanic…. If you are not Hispanic, you won't feel like ‘the network isn't for me.’”
The relative ease with which the network was able to pivot toward the mainstream suggests that Fusion’s Latino audience always had been intended to align more closely with the general market. Certainly, there is an economic incentive to define the audience more broadly. Commercial television networks ultimately create programming for the advertisers that subsidize them, and in an effort to reach the widest possible audience, networks must create programming that will not isolate or exclude prospective viewers.
A case study of the network reveals that in both its digital and television spaces, Fusion’s programming represents a sort of progressive politics, taking clear and affirmative positions on issues such as the legalization of marijuana, immigration reform, and marriage equality. However, the network delivers these positions in a way educated liberals prefer. Thus, having acquired the tastes of the dominant class, Fusion’s writers and producers appear to be creating content for other educated elites.
That is not to say that Fusion is not without promise. The network has inherited Univision’s attentiveness to Latin America, which has typically been rendered invisible by other mainstream outlets. Furthermore, anchor Jorge Ramos’ public scuffle with presidential candidate Donald Trump drew attention to the problematic ways in which journalists have covered the topic of immigration. Still, it is important to consider Fusion’s intended audience. As a news outlet for Latinos, Fusion’s purported mission is to perform a civic engagement function, framing issues of importance to a developing electorate that traditionally has been disenfranchised by news media.
Fusion’s pursuit of the “new Latino,” however, suggests that the invitation to engage politically is not open to all. In the process of defining its target audience, Fusion is in essence determining which Latinos are invited to participate in civic discourses. By defining its audience as fully bicultural and bilingual, the network benefits those already included in civic discourses while ignoring those most marginalized within political processes. Consequently, Fusion does not necessarily fulfill the role traditionally served by Hispanic media. Over the past 200 years, U.S. Hispanic media have not only provided alternatives to the dominant discourses presented in mainstream media, but they also have served as dedicated spaces for Latino cultural production and forms of expression. Scholar Lisa Peñaloza points out that Hispanic media developed largely in response to Latino exclusion in mainstream media and partly in response to demands from the community to address issues that had an impact on Latinos. Language, of course, has been instrumental to this process, serving as a de facto boundary that limits Hispanic media primarily to communication among Latinos. In doing so, it has provided a space where in-group conversation can occur outside white public space.
Over the years, scholars have raised concerns about whether or not Hispanic media will continue to serve this same role in the face of buyouts and takeovers. My analysis of Fusion suggests that these concerns are not unfounded. The relative speed with which Fusion invoked and then abandoned the Latino audience suggests the network’s civic function was always subordinated to its economic function. After all, television networks are in the business of buying and selling audiences, and both ABC and Univision stand to benefit from Fusion’s success by enabling each network to expand its product portfolio and garner a larger share of the market.
Heading into the 2016 election season, the stakes for Latinos are high. Next year, the public will elect legislators who will create policy that will affect Latinos in profound ways. Yet, Latinos still remain disenfranchised in political processes. Only 51 percent of Latinos are registered to vote, compared with 85 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Furthermore, despite gains made in the 2012 election, Latinos remain under-represented in local and state electoral politics relative to their overall numbers. The literature also suggests that largely because of a heavy reliance on Spanish, Latinos have traditionally been left out of civic discourse and have not been the targets of political contact or recruitment. Research on the civic lives of Latinos indicates that only 18 percent of Latinos had been asked to participate civically versus 34 percent of Anglos, including civic actions such as voting, signing a petition, or volunteering on a political campaign. Finally, existing research suggests that Latino immigrants may not typically benefit from strong discursive environments exacerbated by their associational, linguistic, and cultural isolation from the mainstream community. When we consider the broader state of Latinos in American society, the need for a television that can engage disenfranchised Latinos in civic discourses is more important than ever.