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How Hulu Lured Latinos to 'East Los High'

Issue 26 REP East Los High Still - H 2013
Evangeline Ordaz
Noemi Gonzalez (left) and Janine Larina in "East Los High."

The streaming service's racy soap, designed to curb teen pregnancy, uses "salacious" storylines to lure kids to the message.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

It's a hit drama set among Latino teens with themes of love, sex, violence and revenge -- all the elements of a racy telenovela. But East Los High is designed to teach as much as titillate.

The first TV series exclusively on Hulu in English with a Latino cast, the show is the brainchild of the nonprofit Population Media Center, which creates serialized content to promote social change, and is designed as a PSA of sorts for the target Latino audience. Storylines have a moral, characters become role models, and viewers ultimately are directed to websites with resources on such issues as teen pregnancy. "You start out with a very salacious soap opera and get them in," says Evangeline Ordaz, who writes the show with creators Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya. "Then hit them up with, 'If you're going to have sex, be responsible.' "

The idea comes from the steamy Mexican telenovelas that employ The Sabido Method, a way of mixing entertainment and education developed in Mexico in the 1970s by Miguel Sabido. It uses serialized dramas to win over audiences while delivering a pro-social message.

The pitch has proved surprisingly popular. "It's exceeded our expectations as one of the top 10 shows on Hulu during its premiere month," says Andy Forssell, Hulu's acting CEO. The streaming service doesn't release viewership information, but a source says East Los High has performed as well as or better than such hits as Grey's Anatomy and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The show was in the top five among all programs on Hulu for the first month when new episodes were released one day at a time; and it has remained in the top 10 in the month since it went into reruns. It's also the top show on Hulu for Latino viewers.

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The Population Media Center, based in Vermont, had done projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America before turning to the U.S. Ordaz says when they learned that 52 percent of Latinas under the age of 20 are either pregnant or already have a child, they felt they had found an important issue to address. 

Numerous groups from the Hispanic community as well as sex educators were consulted. Ordaz says the show creates "consequences for behavior you don't want people to engage in. That's how you get the message across."

During the writing process, she involved over 200 young people from the target Hispanic areas to look at scripts, form focus groups and even act as background extras, all to insure it would be authentic. There was never any question it would be in English, says Ordaz, "given it is aimed at this younger Latino population, lots of whom are English speaking and some of whom are bilingual."

It was also intended to be a "transmedia experience," according to Mark Warshaw of The Alchemists, a Los Angeles group chosen to help with sales, distribution and marketing. "Transmedia" means the main screen -- online or on cable or broadcast -- was to be supplemented with online material that expands the message and provides resources that the target audience could immediately use.

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The episodes were produced without union or guild involvement in East L.A. using unknown actors before it was shopped to distributors. They were financed by the Population Media Center and private investors, most motivated by the social benefit it promised, says Warshaw. 

ELH originally was envisioned as a web series, but when The Alchemists showed it around, there was interest from ABC Family, MTV and others attracted to a show targeting young Latinos. So the original seven-minute webisodes were reconfigured into 24 half-hour episodes.

"Hulu just made the most sense for the target we wanted to hit -- that generation is way more online," says Warshaw, an executive producer with Mauricio Mota and Katie Elmore Mota.

"We hit that nice middle level where it didn't feel like a PSA," adds Warshaw. "It felt like a really cool, engaging series that happened to provide a lot of good, useful info to teens."

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Hulu licensed ELH for its first series of runs but it is still owned by the Population Media Center and the backers, who already have greenlighted development on a second season. (There is no deal with Hulu or any distributor but that likely will happen.)

Warshaw says there will also be a release to home video, both on DVDs and delivered electronically. 

"For something that is super niche programming, the response has been incredible," says Ordaz. "I don't think anyone expected it to have this kind of response."