Oprah’s OWN and the token Latina

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By Robrt L. Pela

Cynics and anyone with half a brain suspect that the big winner of Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star, a cheesy reality show and the centerpiece of Oprah Winfrey’s new cable television network, will be Elizabeth Espinosa. Not because the former Telemundo news reporter is turning out to be such a stellar contestant on this retread of The Apprentice, but because she’s the only Hispanic person on the entire network.

Who’s surprised? Each of Winfrey’s past protégés (Rachael Ray, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz) is white. The launch of her new Oprah Winfrey Network, which bowed on January 1, continues the tradition of largely ignoring all but rich, white celebrities. The single exception is Your OWN Show, whose contestants are more diverse. Among them is Espinosa, a part-Mexican, part-Salvadorian news reporter who swears that if she wins the competition’s grand prize of her very own TV program, she will go on to host a bilingual talk show for the network.

But will Winfrey let her? Although Latinos make up roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population, and despite Winfrey’s endless stumping for diversity, OWN’s lineup offers limpid reality shows and the sort of B-list celebrity drama already offered up by innumerable other cable networks. Enough Already! with Peter Walsh is simply another show that pokes around in the filthy homes of people who can’t stop shopping for thrift-store junk; Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love is standard-issue Food Network cooking show stuff. Yet to debut are the celebrity reality programs that will likely be what really draws viewers in, and which, in every case, star rich, white celebrities whining about their lives. There’s The Judds, featuring the famous mother-daughter country music duo duking it out over various transgressions; Why Not? With Shania Twain, in which we get to watch the country music princess weep over her divorce and return to her recently abandoned Nashville throne, and, believe it or not, an hour-long weekly program that will follow Ryan and Tatum O’Neal up and down the neurotic rollercoaster that is their fraught, father-daughter relationship.

To be fair, Oprah Presents Master Class, a series of in-depth interviews with politicians and artists, is more serious stuff and has split its first season evenly between blacks and whites. But where are the Latinos?

Oprah seems less interested in diversity than in allowing us to watch famous, fat white people arguing and crying. And that may simply be because the folks at OWN know the demographics for the sort of programming that cable usually offers, and its upper numbers typically don’t include Latinos. In its second month, OWN attracted fewer viewers than Discovery Health, the obscure cable channel it replaced, and the Nielsen Company reported that of the network’s per-show average viewership of about 135,000 people, only a third were women ages 25 to 54, the demographic the channel is after.

Those ratings are down 10 percent from Discovery Health’s ratings of the same time last year, suggesting that maybe folks who came to OWN looking for diversity were expecting something more than the promise of a talk show hosted by openly lesbian Rosie O’Donnell. It could be that Latinos (and anyone interested in new and different programming) saw that Winfrey wasn’t offering them much more than any other network, and simply switched OWN off.

If Espinosa does win her own show, it seems unlikely that viewers will get much ethnic pride from the pretty Latina, who recently told a reporter, “Not that I’m out there talking about our culture or anything, but I’m really proud of my Latin roots and I speak the language and my parents were born in Latin America, so I’m first generation here.”

Win or lose, it shouldn’t be up to a reality show winner to give Latinos a piece of the action on a national television network launched with the promise of diverse programming. And we shouldn’t have to endure another season of Oprah talking about “living your best life” while simultaneously ignoring the fastest-growing minority population in the country.

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