Anyone who has watched a major Latin music awards show in the past 15 years has seen the work of either Francisco “Cisco” Suárez or Mary Black Suárez. They started their production careers in the early 1990s at rival Latin networks. In recent years, Mary has produced Telemundo’s live events, such as the Latin American Music Awards [Latin AMAs], and Cisco has produced Univision’s, including the Latin Grammys. In the age of cord-cutting, the networks face new challenges; Mary and Cisco have had to battle harder — and battle each other — for fewer eyeballs.
But their business rivalry also has a romantic twist: Mary and Cisco have been married for over 30 years.
The two producers first met at a TV summit in 1991. “I was going up the escalator and saw this girl at a phone booth, and we locked eyes,” says Cisco, a tall, gregarious Cuban who came to the United States as a child in the early 1960s.
The girl was Mary: a gray-eyed Venezuelan beauty working as an audio assistant at a production company. Cisco was smitten. “I went over to hug my friend, but I was really going over for Mary,” he says. She agrees: “It was love at first sight.” They married two years later.
During the early 2000s, Mary left the network to raise their three children while Cisco launched Univision’s Premios Juventud (Youth Awards) and began producing the network’s live shows. When Mary returned to production, she went back to Telemundo, initially to produce Premios Billboard de la Música Mexicana, and then in 2015, the Latin AMAs. Suddenly, the couple were competitors again.
In early 2019, after nearly two decades at Univision, Cisco joined Telemundo as executive vp primetime non-scripted realities and specials. He oversees all reality programming, live events, specials and music tentpoles — including Mary’s longtime project, the Latin AMAs. So for the first time ever, the Latin TV power duo will be on the same team: working the fifth annual Latin AMAs, featuring Marc Anthony, Anuel AA and Pitbull, on Oct. 17.
The partnership comes at a pivotal time in live TV: Viewership is shifting to nonlinear programming, and networks are placing an emphasis on enticing younger viewers through digital channels, like social media, to offset the decline in traditional viewers. (In 2018, the Grammys drew their smallest audience in a decade, at 19.8 million viewers; in 2019, the audience remained static.)
But paradoxically, viewership for the Latin AMAs has been growing. Between 2017 and 2018, viewers for the event jumped from 4.39 million to 4.8 million, according to Nielsen. Based on Mary’s track record, Cisco is joining a winning team.
So: When you’re producing competing shows, what’s the pillow talk like?
Cisco Suárez: A very simple rule that has kept our marriage healthy is never, ever, ever talk about business at home.
Mary Black Suárez: Before we got married, Ángela Carrasco [a Dominican singer who was hugely popular in the late 1980s] was friends with both of us and didn’t know we were dating. He was trying to book her for Carnaval Miami, and I for Calle Ocho. When she found out we were together, she wanted to kill us.
How do your business styles differ, as executives and producers?
MBS: I’m obsessive-compulsive: I make lists of everything, I’m very meticulous, I’m a Virgo. Cisco is super creative. So we each compensate for what the other lacks.
CS: I love the music part of it, the creation, the effects, the flying crap. I’m always thinking about how to take things to the next level. When you put our strengths together, it really becomes a very solid production.
At a time of declining ratings, how has your approach to viewer engagement changed?
CS: Digital is powerful. The secret is figuring out how to hype the show through social media. That’s why all the nominations and winners are announced online — because these are the people who are voting.
MBS: When you know your audience, you know what they’re looking for. But then you need to be consistent with what you give them. This particular show [Latin AMAs] is seen by what we call the 200% audience: 100% Latin and 100% American.
Can you explain the 200% concept?
CS: Who is listening to Bad Bunny and Ozuna? The Latinos born in the U.S. speak English and don’t necessarily watch Telemundo. But when we have events with artists, they’ll watch. The next day, they go online and you see the boom. We need to cater to this new generation.
Has the average viewership age for the Latin AMAs gone down?
CS: Yes, and not just for this show. For the third year in a row, we’re the No. 1 Hispanic network in the U.S. in the 18-34 demo [on weekday primetime]. These are the people watching Exatlón, La Voz. This has been Telemundo’s biggest success.
How has catering to both traditional TV viewers and smartphone viewers affected music programming?
CS: The U.S. is a melting pot. You have your hardcore audience, and then you have these kids who are bringing new viewers. How do you format this show so the lady who watches you every day gets something and doesn’t say, “This reggaeton is driving me crazy”? You have to balance genres, nationalities and youth.
MBS: It’s like being a DJ. You balance the show according to the time, audience and guests.
Nielsen recently found that the majority of Hispanic households in the U.S. speak Spanish at home — they view the language as a way of maintaining a strong cultural identity and connecting with older generations. As a result, younger Hispanics born in the U.S. aren’t losing their Spanish. Do you think that’s having an impact on Latin music?
CS: We are finally seeing Latin artists on the late-night [mainstream] shows. The resistance to the language is changing incredibly fast. I think you’ll see that in the LAMAs this year.
MBS: The music is also in English and Spanish. That’s why we chose “music has no one language” as the theme of the show this year. Music is emotion — you don’t have to speak the words to get it.
What advice do you give each other?
CS: I don’t know about advice. I do have a one-liner — “Stay within budget” — which applies both at home and at work.
MBS: My advice to him is “smile.” He’s a very serious man. Breathe.
What’s the best way to build business relationships in the Latin music industry?
CS: When you are in a position where you have the means and opportunity to allow others to grow, give artists a chance. When you give managers that break and say, “I’ll put your little act on the show,” and that small act becomes a beast, you create relationships — with the artist, with the label, with the manager.
MBS: Create trust. When you are affectionate, when you deliver, people trust you 100%. The same thing happens with the audience. When you gain their trust, they stay with you because they know what they’ll find on your shows.