In "Browntown" there's no telling whom you might meet. It could be the gossiping regular at the bodega, the local bartender who won't stop singing showtunes or a cop who dreams of becoming a break dancer. But they all feel familiar and they're always funny.
At least that's the vision behind the first sketch comedy TV show from Mitu, a downtown L.A. digital media start-up run by former Nickelodeon executives. Set to air in early 2019 on Paramount Network, "Browntown" will include sketches, music parodies and animated shorts that offer glimpses of life in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Company executives hope the TV series will do for Latinos what Fox's "In Living Color" did for African American audiences in the '90s.
Until recently, Mitu was known for creating clickable content for young Latinos through its own website and on Youtube and social media. With "Browntown," the studio is venturing into new terrain by producing longer, more traditional content – TV series, documentaries and, eventually, movies – that caters to younger Latinos who are underserved by Hollywood.
"We're hardly ever seen or heard in traditional mainstream media," said Mitu Chief Executive Herb Scannell, a veteran TV executive who is half Puerto Rican. "We're too often underestimated."
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The Latino millennial population is the fastest-growing moviegoer segment, and Latino millennials spend more time on their phones consuming digital content than any other demographic, according to PwC research.
Yet they are underrepresented on screen. Latinos accounted for 18 percent of the U.S. population in 2016 but made up only 6 percent of speaking or named characters on screen, according to USC's Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment. Only a handful of TV shows over the decades have depicted Latino characters. "I Love Lucy," "Chico and the Man," "Dora the Explorer," "Ugly Betty," "George Lopez" and "Jane the Virgin" are among the few.
Serving a largely untapped Latino audience has fueled Mitu's rapid growth. The company, which declined to disclose its finances, says its videos and other content that celebrate cultural nuances and critique stereotypes reach more than 90 million people a month across Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms.
"Digital is the best thing that could have happened to any community that is underserved, because it gives you a free platform and a voice," said Mitu co-founder Beatriz Acevedo. "You don't have to wait for someone to validate you."
The company got its start in 2012 capturing snippets of the Latino experience in short Buzzfeed-like videos on various free platforms. Mitu viewers are probably familiar with Abuela, a gray-haired Cuban grandmother character who affectionately, and sometimes a little too insistently, offers her grandchildren food. Or Mama Rosa's segment, in which she explains or acts out Mexican stereotypes – like why growing up Mexican means you have to be wary of la chancla, an object that Mexican mother stereotypes commonly use to spank their kids. The site also links to stories and tweets featuring well-known Latino personalities, such as Gael Garcia Bernal's recent singing performance during the Oscar ceremony.
"Browntown" represents a new, more ambitious phase in Mitu's growth. The company has been experimenting with longer shows for a couple years. The company in 2015 produced two TV series about home decor and beauty for Discovery U.S. Hispanic Networks. In January 2017, Netflix premiered the stand-up comedy show "They Can't Deport Us All," developed by Mitu.
Paramount Network was interested in "Browntown" because it wanted to broaden its audience, which under its former name Spike TV was mostly male, executives said.
"In my dream world, 'Browntown' is a show that everyone watches, but exposes us to the Latino talent that's out there," Paramount Network President Kevin Kay said. "They haven't had enough opportunities ... to do these types of shows."
A number of digital media companies have targeted Latino millennials in recent years. Super Deluxe, for example, is experimenting with nontraditional entertainment for millennials, including a live telenovela. Sofia Vergara co-founded Raze last year, which, like Mitu, hopes to produce films and TV shows and sell them to third parties. In July, Zoe Saldana founded BeSe, a digital media company that she hopes will empower Latinos.
Mitu isn't abandoning digital content – the company recently announced it is working with the National Football League to create social media content for Latino football fans. But Mitu's doubling down on longer content is indicative of the industry's move away from "click-bait" videos and toward better-quality content, Acevedo said.
Company executives say they have a slate of 25 productions in various stages of development. The projects include "Long Distance," a pilot episode recently submitted to YouTube Red about a young Latina who moves from Chicago to L.A. and struggles to maintain her relationship with her Irish American boyfriend. Also planned is a horror-comedy, a one-hour drama and documentaries.
Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures and Mitu's primary shareholder, said the company's executives have the experience to bring these projects to life.
"We need to be in the room and having the conversations" with the major cable networks and streaming companies, Suster said. "Having the relationships they have will put us there."
For 10 years Scannell was president at Nickelodeon, which under his leadership became the top network on cable TV with animated series that featured diverse characters such as "Dora the Explorer" and "Rugrats."
Mitu doesn't have millions of dollars to finance projects. And, with only 120 employees, it may be a challenge to develop the same kind of shows that major studios with far more resources make.
Still, Suster said he's confident that Mitu can make the jump to TV.
"If you serve an endemic audience in a unique way that hasn't been served before, you earn the right to take the brand to different channels," he said.