Spanish Programming and Subtitle Purgatory

The new TV season is beginning. Last night, I got bored during Downton Abbey and was not impressed with The Good Wife. They both seemed sluggish and a bit dull. Tonight, The Bachelor begins a new season, which of course I'll watch, but it will be the same old formula (although the Bachelor this year is from Venezuela and a native Spanish speaker.)

I think know why these shows, which I used to really like, now seem plodding and predictable to me: For the past few months, I've been watching Teleseries produced in Colombia, including La Reina Del Sur and Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal, and they just rock. They are like the Sopranos on speed. Only Breaking Bad and the first season of Homeland come close in terms of capturing your attention and holding it.

But here's the problem and why I'm writing about this. Other than these two shows, which were available with English subtitles when I watched them on MUN2-TV, since I can't understand Spanish when spoken rapidly, I have no way to watch other shows like El Capo, El Cartel de Sapos (Snitch Cartel), Alias al Mexicano and Los Tres Caines. None of the networks airing these other shows provide English subtitles or even English closed captioning.

These shows aren't all fictional. From the cartels to FARC and the right-wing paramilitary death squads, to the militarization of law enforcement, corrupt cops and the global reach of the DEA, many are educational as well as entertaining. [More...]

El Patron del Mal, Alias al Mexicano, Cartel del Sapos and Los Tres Caines portray real people and events. In Patron del Mal, there is little "law and order" bias and it's fairly consistent with historical accounts. While it humanizes the central traffickers (except for Escobar), it gives equal time to the victims, which is not surprising since it was written by Camilo Cano and produced by Juana Uribe -- each had a parent who were victims of Escobar.

Teresa Mendoza in the fictional La Reina del Sur is one of the strongest female character roles ever. Next Sunday she may get competition when Mun2-TV begins airing La Teniente, an action Teleseries about a young woman named Roberta who is the first woman to serve in combat in an elite anti-terrorim unit of the Mexican Marines. She turns out, of course, not to be just young and beautiful, but the toughest and smartest Marine in the group, and she overcomes all the male hostility, gaining everyone's respect. Like Teresa Mendoza, she breaks the "glass ceiling" and should serve as a powerful role model. (If you are thinking a top female drug trafficker can't serve as a role model, watch the series and see if you don't change your mind.)

So Mun2-TV is the only network to consistently feature English subtitles on its teleseries and telenovelas. Its parent, Telemnundo, used to but stopped on all but one or two telenovelas. As far as I can tell, and I've spent considerable time on this, neither Galavision, Univision, UniMas or Fox Mundo include English subtitles in their teleseries. And at least on my TV, only Spanish close-captioning is available.

If you aren't familiar with Latin, Mexican and Colombian-produced teleseries or telenovelas, I think there is a big difference between them. Telenovelas have emotional themes like U.S. soap operas. I have no interest in them. Teleseries (which include the Narconovelas) tend be action-oriented and made with much bigger budgets. Some are filmed in several countries with great scenery. They are much better made and have terrific actors. The cream of the crop of teleseries usually come from Colombia.

Telemundo is currently re-airing La Reina del Sur Monday to Thursday, without subtitles or English close-captioning. Why, when its subsidiary network, Mun2-TV has them? (The good news is Mun2-TV will re-air all of La Reina Del Sur starting in February.) Here's Telmundo bragging about the show being its highest ever rated, and translated into 32 languages (so why did it pull the English subtitles in the U.S.?)

The Spanish networks, including Telemundo and MundoFox, have put full episodes of their programs on their You Tube channels -- but there are no subtitles and You Tube's close-captioning is abysmal. Same for Caracol (and their full videos are not viewable in the U.S.)

Telemundo just inked a deal with a company called Drama Fever to provide translation of many of its shows for online viewing, but there are no teleseries so far. (The majority of Drama Fever's content seems to be Korean.)

I've been trying to watch El Capo, but it's too frustrating because of the language barrier. There's no available version of El Cartel del Sapos (Cartel of the Snitches) with subtitles currently airing. (You can get DVD's of Cartel with English subtitles, but from the reviews, they seem to be hacked copies, with poor video and incomplete episodes.)

I particularly want to see Los Tres Caines. It's about Carlos Castaño Gil and his brothers Vicente and Fidel, major drug traffickers who founded the AUC in Colombia (the right wing paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) after FARC allegedly kidnapped and killed their father. They were instrumental in the take down of their former drug associate Pablo Escobar. They founded Los Pepes (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar), which shared information with the Colombian military's Bloque de Búsqueda (Search Bloc) and the DEA, enabling the Search Bloc to find and kill Escobar (although many say he killed himself and others say it was one of the Pepes who fired the fatal shot.)

The Castano Brothers were also reportedly working with the CIA and provided information that led to the capture of Cali Cartel head Gilberto Oruela-Rodriguez, who is still serving a 30 year sentence in the U.S. They later became right-wing death squads.

Fox Mundo is now airing "Alias el Mexicano" about the infamous drug trafficker José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, one of the leaders of the Medellin cartel, along with Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder and the Ochoa brothers. The paths of many of these people are interwined. It was Escobar who introduced Rodriguez Gacha to Fidel Castano. Rodrguez Gacha and Castano had a shared political view (right-wing anti-communist) and Rodriguez-Gacha reportedly led the cartel's military operations in Magdalena Medio, where the Medellin Cartel owned huge amounts of land. Carlos Lehder, on the other hand, had far left political views. Here's a Brookings Institution chapter on them and their interconnections.

But I can't watch these shows because Xfinity doesn't carry Fox Mundo as a channel in Denver, and while it has some of its shows, including Alias el Mexicano, available "on demand" for free, they are only available to those with Xfinity's Latino package. Why would an English-speaking only viewer pay for the Latino package when there are no subtitles? And why wouldn't Xfinity want the extra subscribers and money it could generate if the shows provided subtitles?

In Colombia, Caracol (maker of Escobar: Patron de Mal) and RCN television (maker of Los Tres Caines) have many shows on Hulu, but they don't have subtitles. Xfinity carries Caracol, but it's only available by subscription to the Latino package. And since there aren't any subtitles, there's no point in subscribing if you don't speak Spanish.

These networks and Xfinity have to know there would be a substantial market for these programs if they opened them up to English speakers who don't know Spanish.

The networks are also losing money in DVD sales. While Patron del Mal is available with English subtitles, la Reina del Sur and Los Tres Caines are not.

Maybe if enough people complain, Telemundo will restore subtitles to its programs and FoxMundo and Caracol and RCN will start providing them. And Xfinity will start carrying FoxMundo in Denver (you can get it in Miami, LA, Dallas and some other cities.)

Another option, of course, is to strengthen my Spanish. But to understand these shows at the pace they speak would take me years. Yesterday I signed up for the free version of the recently added App on iTunes, Fluencia (You can also get the computer version here.) I have to say, it is far and away the best Spanish language teaching program I've tested so far. (I did not care for Rosetta Stone, it was slow and boring and I didn't learn a thing.) Fluencia is completely intuitive, very fast and interesting. It was so much fun I did all 15 free lessons in one sitting. And today I remember everything I learned yesterday.

I've read online that people have been able to learn Spanish by watching Teleseries or Telenovelas. I don't buy it. I've watched all 70 plus episodes each of El Patron del Mal and La Reina del Sur at least twice with English subtitles on Mun2 TV, and when I try and watch again on Telemundo without subtitles, I can't understand what they are saying. I can follow a bit from the Spanish close-captioning, but it isn't a true translation and is incomplete. It's also hard to watch and read close captioning (as opposed to subtitles) at the same time. Also, if that were true, I'd be fluent by now from all the Spanish wiretaps I've listened to while reading the FBI/DEA translations at the same time. (When I re-listen to the tapes without transcripts I still only understand bits and pieces.)

If you want to see for yourself what I'm talking about, you can watch tonight's episode of La Reina del Sur on Telemundo. It airs at 8 and again at 11 pm MT. It's free, but it's in Spanish with no subtitles.

So what's the solution to this dilemma, which I'd bet is one shared by a lot of English-only speakers who want to watch these shows? I think Xfinity should pay a bit more to the networks for the shows, to cover the networks' cost of adding translation. Xfinity could then add $5.00 a month to new subscribers to its Latino package, drawing lots of new English-speaking customers to make up the cost. The Spanish networks could in turn raise their ad prices since they are gaining additional viewers to cover any additional cost of translation. They might even profit. This might also be good for Spanish-only speaking viewers who want to learn English -- they could hear the show in Spanish and watch accurate English subtitles.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Increasing fluency (none / 0) (#1)
    by Mikado Cat on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 04:27:20 AM EST
    seems the best way. I'm not sure what the key is to Spanish, but watching TV doesn't seem to help. Have you tried listening to the news in Spanish, the diction tends to be better.

    I'm taking a guess that telenova is grade school or maybe high school level Spanish, not a huge vocabulary, but delivered with lots of emotion.

    Spanish has the running together of words that can be tough.

    Good luck, self improvement is fun.

    My Cuban cleaning lady (none / 0) (#2)
    by fishcamp on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 06:51:23 AM EST
    has helped me with Spanish as I've helped her with English.  We also text in Spanish and have the same Spanish/English dictionaries.  Cuban Spanish is the most difficult for me since they speak really fast.  Over the years I have learned to translate any and all the numbers back and forth between English, Spanish, German, and French without a pause and that has helped tremendously with those languages.  They say Spanish is the easiest language to learn but with 80+ conjugations of every verb it's not that easy at all.

    The Bachlor (none / 0) (#3)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 09:46:29 AM EST
    I have never watched any of those shows, but last night my gf, who watches them all, was running around singing the praises of Juan Pablo.  It was kinda funny, but also very odd to see my gf acting like a made for TV love struck teenager.

    Who in the hell is Juan Pablo ?

    Speaking of sucky Mondays, yesterday has been deemed Blue Monday, the worse day of the year:

    But over the past three years, researchers analysed more than 2million tweets posted by Britons in January looking for negative language and phrases indicating a drop in mood.

    They found that today, there will be nearly five times the average number of tweets relating to guilt, as people abandon their promises to pursue a healthier lifestyle.

    The analysis, by drinks company Upbeat, also found complaints about the weather will be six times higher than usual - and men will feel more miserable than women.

    Today has also been dubbed Divorce Monday by legal experts. It is the most popular day of the year for starting divorce proceedings. And January is the busiest divorce month, with twice as many divorces being filed as the second most popular month September.

    So if you made it through yesterday, congrats, the rest of the year is downhill.  

    My day was OK, no different than any other Monday except for the fricken weather.  Being from Wisconsin it is rather amusing to watch the news about the dire cold coming, mid 20's.  I have been in Houston for 15 years and I can attest, it was fricken cold on the way in today.  I had to get gas($1.14/gal for mid) and I was shammed at 8am by the girl who works at the gas cube at HEB via the loudspeaker.

    Shammed? Gas cube? HEB? (none / 0) (#6)
    by unitron on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 11:08:15 AM EST

    And gas at 1980 prices?


    What I fear... (none / 0) (#5)
    by unitron on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 11:06:23 AM EST
    "(If you are thinking a top female drug trafficker can't serve as a role model..."

    ...is that she can.

    "Given demographic trends" (none / 0) (#7)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 11:16:04 AM EST
    Given demographic trends and the gradual erosion of Spanish-speaking skills, the trend toward English subtitles is expected to expand. So far, the subtitled programs aren't drawing huge numbers compared to solely English- or Spanish-language stations, but there is still an audience there. For example, earlier this year "Decisiones Extremas" (Extreme Decisions) re-aired in March on mun2 and hit a high of 172,000 viewers among adults 18-34 -- the largest program delivery in the history of the network.


    "The bicultural audience is the hardest one to get," said Flavio Morales, vice president of programming at mun2, a bilingual network. "There are tons of choices on broadcast and cable -- in both English and Spanish -- that they could be watching, like "The Biggest Loser" or the NBA playoffs."

    I could not find any information regarding non-Hispanic consumption of Spanish-Language programming.

    Sorry, (none / 0) (#8)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 11:18:05 AM EST
    yes, in 2010 they used subtitles (none / 0) (#9)
    by Jeralyn on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 11:55:57 AM EST
    for several shows -- and then they stopped last year or the year before, except mostly for Mun2.

    Here are the details of the new deal Telemundo has with Drama Fever. It looks promising, but none of the teleseries I mentioned are mentioned as being on the horizon -- mostly soap type stuff.


    Go the immersion route (none / 0) (#10)
    by Dadler on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 12:02:35 PM EST
    Take a 90-day excursion to Mexico and a Spanish immersion program. Lots of them out there. Best way, from what I have heard from friends and friends of friends. Then again, I'm the product of a mother who is tri-lingual (English, Spanish, French), a mother who actually appeared on Spanish language talk shows in LA in the early 70s. I actually used to speak Spanish fairly well as a very small child, but then lost it all when me and moms went through domestic violence hell in the mid and late 70s. Such is life.

    Peace out, J.

    It's Weird... (none / 0) (#12)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 02:10:08 PM EST
    ...when you are Mexico, to flip on a station and find something you have seen, dubbed in Spanish with English subtitles, but it's super easy to pick up bit and pieces if it's something you have seen before.

    I mentioned this before, watch a Spelling Bee with either the a person signing or the SAP function on, it's seriously funny watching them phonetically spelling it out through gestures and words.  

    They are obviously told not to actually spell the word, even by mistake, so something like phoney will come across like "The word is F.OWE.KNEE" and I assume with the odd faces from the signer, thet are trying the same tactic, but with gestures.

    It's like trying to solves those puzzles on Mickeys Big Mouth bottle caps if your turn the sound off.


    Not SAP Function CC (none / 0) (#13)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 03:40:27 PM EST
    My bad.

    My wife and I watched Downton Abbey... (none / 0) (#14)
    by magster on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 12:31:15 PM EST
    season 4 already. Just when we were about to give up on it, the second or third episode got us re-hooked. The show is transitioning from Matthew's death, be patient.

    w/o subtitles? Showoff. (none / 0) (#16)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 01:51:20 PM EST