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Cable News Channel Fusion Searches For Its Audience


Millennials aren't known for watching TV news, but one new network is trying to change that. Fusion is the joint project of ABC News and the Spanish-language television giant Univision. The network hopes to appeal to young Latinos. NPR's David Folkenflik paid a visit.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: When Jorge Ramos switches each day from anchoring Univision to his daily show on Fusion, it requires him to shed the tie to ease into the next studio over and to glide from Spanish into English.

JORGE RAMOS: Welcome to America. I'm Jorge Ramos.

FOLKENFLIK: Fusion and Univision share a main newsroom at a converted hangar outside Miami International Airport. Ramos is the chief news anchor for both, the interviewer of presidents in the U.S. and Latin America. But at 56, Ramos bridges the divide between networks.

RAMOS: So here you can see it's both teams - Fusion and Univision. And you could immediately see the difference. If they speak Spanish or are over 30, they work for Univision. If they're under 30, they work for Fusion. If they say Los Angeles, you know, it's Univision. If they say Los Angeles, it's a different story.

FOLKENFLIK: Initially, Fusion promised to deliver the news in English to younger Hispanics who consider that their primary language. Fusion represents a bold effort to capture that audience. Isaac Lee is the head of news for Univision and the CEO of Fusion.

ISSAC LEE: In my mind, I was going to produce a cable network for me. And I was thrilled, you know. It was all going to be about Latin America. And it was all going to be for Latinos. And it was going to be very newsy and some somewhat earnest and I'm sure incredibly boring, too.

FOLKENFLIK: Lee says that founding vision had the backing of all kinds of corporate officials and consultants and was pretty much DOA.

LEE: And on the other hand, I had brilliant, amazing, young journalists that were telling me, dude, what's wrong with you? You know.

FOLKENFLIK: By the time the network launched last fall, Lee and his team had quietly decided to cast wider nets to reel in millennials of all backgrounds. And that would help with younger Latinos, too.

ALICIA MENENDEZ: I think we want to be spoken to in our wholeness.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Alicia Menendez, the 31-year-old host of a nightly show on Fusion. Menendez is a third-generation Cuban-American. And she says Fusion appeals to Latinos with a wink rather than a shout in talking about sex, relationships, pop culture and politics.

MENENDEZ: That doesn't mean being like, hey, Latino, I'm talking to you specifically. It means saying, hey, Alicia, these are stories that I'm interested in and you might be interested in. And creating that peer-to-peer relationship, rather than trying to minimize any person's identity into one facet of themselves.

FOLKENFLIK: When Fusion devotes coverage to foreign affairs, it emphasizes unrest in Venezuela over tension in Ukraine. And stories on immigration mix with coverage of the economy, music, the marijuana trade and soccer. The comedian Paul F. Thompkins hosts a show satirizing cable news pundits. He interviews adversarial puppets.

So far, however, Fusion's audiences are so modest that the Nielsen ratings company cannot estimate how many people are watching. Isaac Lee is counting on Disney to use its muscle to strike deals to reach tens of millions more cable and satellite TV subscribers, but former CNN U.S. President Jonathan Klein says that small following should be liberating. It allows Fusion's leadership to experiment rather than to hunker down.

JONATHAN KLEIN: There's so much sameness now between the cable networks and the broadcast network news offerings. And you get a whiff of a sense of rebelliousness or inventiveness that younger viewers especially will probably welcome.

FOLKENFLIK: Fusion executives told me they look not to TV, but the digital world for their true competition, such as BuzzFeed and to a lesser extent Vice. Fusion has hired big names from the worlds of social and digital media, one of the first employees of Google, for example, and also the founder of the site Jezebel and others from The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and Reuters. Fusion's Isaac Lee hopes for the newcomers to work digital alchemy. While he's 43, Lee says he shares the resistance of millennials to being pigeonholed.

LEE: It was not hard for me because my mother's family's from Russia. My dad was born in Poland. His family are Holocaust survivors. I was born in Bogota, Colombia. I'm now an American. I'm gay, and I'm Jewish. So when I think about the census card and which boxes I should check it is really impossible.

FOLKENFLIK: Similarly, Lee says, he expects young, Latino viewers to demand a lot from Fusion.

LEE: It needs to be smart. It needs to be engaging. It needs to be interesting. And it needs to acknowledge the fact that they exist, that we exist.

FOLKENFLIK: The tougher challenge may be to get millennials to sit down to watch TV at all. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.