Yeidy Rivero was where she liked to be best on a recent weekday night –sitting in her Ann Arbor home, watching TV for several hours. But it wasn’t to unwind.
Watching television is Rivero’s profession. As associate professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Screen Arts and Cultures, and the Program of American Culture, she studies the medium and its relationship with culture and race, with a special emphasis on subjects of interest to Hispanics.
In some academic circles, scholars still debate whether TV is a crucial force in contemporary society, or just another electrical appliance. But Rivero saw the big picture after focusing on theater studies as an undergraduate and the first few years of grad school. Since earning a Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 2000, she has published one book, is working on her second, and contributes frequently to scholarly journals and magazines on a range of subjects from Ugly Betty, a network TV show based on a young Hispanic woman, to Havana’s commercial television industry in the 1950s.
“I never in my life imagined I would be studying this,” she said. “My background is in theater. It’s my passion. But TV is a very powerful medium. It’s still the most powerful media outlet. Theater shouldn’t be elite, but not everyone can go.
“So I switched. I took a TV class in 1997 and fell in love with the subject. At the time, it was unexplored. So it was great timing, and I was at the right place to study the subject.”
In her native Puerto Rico, Rivero was as tuned in as the next kid to the popular TV shows of the time. But at the University of Puerto Rico, her scholarly aspirations were reserved for the theater. “My goal was to stay in Puerto Rico and study theater.”
As an undergraduate, she couldn’t help noticing how Blacks were discriminated against in student productions at the school, which sparked her interest in a subject that would later become the topic of her first book on television.
“I grew up listening to racist remarks, but nothing clicked until I went to the University of Puerto Rico,” she said. “I had classmates who were Black Puerto Ricans who were very talented, but every time there was a casting call, they weren’t selected. It happened over and over.”
Instead of remaining in Puerto Rico, Rivero enrolled in graduate school at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, graduating in 1993 with a master’s degree in theater. “One of my mentors wanted me to con-tinue in theater,” in a Ph.D. program, “but I loved to be involved in theater, not to study theater.”
For the next four years, Rivero immersed herself in Spanish-language theater in New York City. She also taught at Hostos Community College (City University of New York) from 1994-96, worked as a translator for the Spanish edition of the New York Daily News, and did voice-overs for American commercials aimed at Spanish-language viewers.
“For Avon and the like,” she says. “It was a big market – not as big as it is now, but it was growing. They needed people with my kind of accent in Spanish. It was nice work.
“But I was ready to move on. I had learned that I loved to teach, but to be a professor you have to have a Ph.D. At the time, many theater pro-grams were being closed. There weren’t that many jobs. And I had already decided I wanted to study media.”
So in 1997, she moved to Austin and entered the Ph.D. program in the University of Texas Department of Radio, TV & Film.
In the mid-’80s, there had been only one Spanish-language network and a handful of newscasts in Spanish. In 1987, Telemundo, the country’s No. 2 Spanish-language network, arrived on the scene. In the mid-’90s, Spanish-language TV took off with an explosion of talk shows, game shows, variety programs, sports, music and a 24-hour all-news broadcast – many of them made in Miami.
By 2003, the number of Hispanic actors on network TV had grown five-fold in little more than a decade. Seven percent of regular actors on the major networks, more than 40 in all, were Hispanic, up from 4 percent just two years earlier. Rivero, then, was perfectly positioned to explore this growing phenomenon.
“Usually the focus is on text at most schools,” she says. “But what was being studied was being expanded at that time. The professor was the father of TV and cultural studies. And he was interested in what the crews and writers did. It’s a producer’s medium. There were some amazing books being published at the time. Some books blew my mind,” books that interviewed “producers, writers, TV analysts and audience analysts.”
After earning a Ph.D. in 2000, Rivero taught for a year at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio before accepting a position at the University of Indiana, which seemed a world away from New York City.
“I had very nice, very supportive colleagues, but the actual town and student population wasn’t very diverse. It was very homogeneous. At the beginning, it was very hard,” she said.
Receiving a Ford Foundation grant in 2003, she studied at the University of California-Los Angeles for a year and in 2005 finished her first book, Tuning Out Blackness: Race and Nation in the History of Puerto Rican Television (Duke University Press).
Making use of archival research, textual analysis and interviews, Rivero demonstrated how racist programming intersected with Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth, its natural culture and the influx of Cuban immigrants after 1960. In a nation that saw itself as a place of racial equality, Rivero detailed quite a different story in local television. White performers in blackface were common. For example, the first chapter focuses on Ramon Rivera, the most famous blackface and black voice actor in Puerto Rican television in the late 1940s and 1950s, who was inspired by a form of Cuban theater.
“For television studies scholars and historians, Tuning Out Blackness fills a critical void in understanding important similarities and differences in the television cultures of Latin America and the United States,” wrote a reviewer in Journalist History magazine. “The book also appeals to media scholars concerned with media consolidation and localism.”
As it turned out, interest in Rivero’s first book wasn’t limited to media studies programs.
“It’s a surprise that the book is read not necessarily in media courses but usually in history courses – Latin American or Caribbean history. I never imagined these people reading a media book,” she says.
In 2008, Rivero received the Trustee’s Teaching Award in Indiana’s department of communications and culture. She was a visiting resident scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in 2009.
The following year, Rivero was named an associate professor in Michigan’s Department of American Culture and Screen Arts and Cultures, where she continues to work on her second book, a study of commercial television in 1950s Cuba. She has made three trips to Cuba, an out-growth of her visit to the University of Miami Library’s Cuban heritage collection.
“The head librarian had contacts with librarians in the main library in Havana,” she said. “That librarian in Havana opened doors to me to the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television Research Center. No one had access to that. They were very nice; I was very, very lucky.”
Rivero has written extensively for academic journals about Cuban television and other topics, including Ugly Betty, a groundbreaking sitcom with a four-year run in the United States. Not only was a young Hispanic woman at the center of a national network TV show, but Betty’s young nephew also was gay, another big challenge to stereotype.
Led by America Ferrera, who won an Emmy for playing the title role, the Ugly Betty cast included several Hispanics, as did the show’s long list of guest stars.
The National Latino Media Council, which each year grades the four major networks on diversity efforts, saluted Ugly Betty for its portrayal of Latino characters and for leading the way in Latino-based themes.
Even more telling, Rivero says, Ugly Betty was modeled after the Colombian soap opera, Yo Soy Betty La Fea, making it the first American show to be adapted from a telenovela, or soap opera.
“It’s definitely a byproduct of globalization. Usually the exportation of formats originates in Europe. From Latin America, you expect it to come from Mexico. But to come from a small TV market like Colombia, which until recently was local – that was rare. Ugly Betty is seen in Europe, China, Greece, Israel. ...”
The field is expanding on several fronts. According to Arizona State University Mass Communications Professor Craig Allen, the most dramatic development in modern American mass media is not Facebook, blogging or the social media. Nothing has expanded more rapidly, and has greater implications, than the meteoric rise of Spanish-language television.
In March, the Univision Network announced that it would finish the February sweep period as the No. 4 network in broadcast primetime among all adults 18-34 and in the 12-34 age group – ahead of NBC.
But with more Hispanic population growth coming from American-born Latinos than from new migration, Spanish-language networks will need to be more attuned to creating programming that will interest American-born Hispanics.
In other words, Rivero has plenty of ground to cover in a field of study that many academicians still regard with disdain.
“In academia, many people don’t acknowledge the field; they look down on it,” she says. “They’ll say: ‘I don’t have a TV.’
“I just say: ‘how boring. You’re cut off from the majority of the population.’”