Ylse is a 2008 sitcom about a modern Americana and the quirky characters around her. It won a 2010 Imagen Award for best Internet sitcom and the audience favorite at the 2009 Rasquache Film Festival. Ylse creator Ruth Livier was the first person admitted to the Writers Guild for work in new media.
Back in 2000, when I originally wrote Ylse as a TV spec, there was absolutely no chance of it being produced. At a conference designed to nurture and support Latino talent, I approached an executive for advice who basically asked me, “Who are you for anyone to produce your show?” Others asked condescendingly, “Who’s going to watch this?” It was a slap in the face, especially from folks who had been invited to encourage us. The worst part was, their comments weren’t based on my writing. They had not read a single word. Their immediate objections were based entirely on the concept of a bicultural, bilingual, Latina-driven dramedy written by someone with no track record. I mean, what an obnoxious punk I was, right? I was clearly a delusional child who had no idea how the business worked. True. They were right. Who was I to think that anyone would take me seriously? Plus, how exactly was I supposed to prove that there was a market for this type of content? So, I filed the script away.
It would be years before things changed. In the meantime, I grew irked and frustrated to see very little on mainstream media that was culturally relevant to me. And, trying to explain to folks that Spanish Language TV was just as irrelevant was a losing battle.
I’m part of the demo that Alma DDP defines in its 2011 publication “A Brave New World of Consumidores” as “Fusionistas: English oriented [Hispanics] with dual cultural affinity”. There are millions of us. According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million or 16% of the US population is Hispanic, and there were 35.3 million of us in 2000. The US Census Bureau and US Consumers in Transition: A HispanTelligence 2003 Special Report stated that, “Hispanics are English dominant. More than 75% of all US Hispanics either speak English exclusively or are bilingual and speak English well or very well”.
But, despite the numbers, television programming failed to reflect the changing reality. We continued to primarily be portrayed as stereotypical, secondary characters…if we appeared on TV at all. The 1999 Screen Actors Guild Report “Missing in Action: Latinos In and Out of Hollywood” found that SAG jobs for Latino members hovered at around 3.5% at a time when we made up 13% of the population. (More than 80% of total SAG jobs went to non-Hispanic whites). This report was followed by the 2000 SAG Report titled “Still Missing…” That should sum it up.
Based on the available programming, it seemed that the powers that be were quite content to continue programming with blinders on. It seemed that as far as they were concerned, a) bicultural was not a market, b) minorities only existed in the background and our voices didn’t matter, and c) our purchasing power wasn’t meaningful enough to create content that spoke to us. Bottom line was, we minorities would not be able to prove our markets as long as the decision makers continued to place their bets on shows that primarily appealed to ‘Middle America.’ Until that changed, there would be no way in.
It didn’t matter. A mixture of willfulness and naiveté convinced me that it was only a matter of time before the buying power of the Hispanic market would suddenly be ‘discovered’. The same 2003 HispanTelligence Report stated that, “The spending power of Hispanic youth totaled $19 billion” and later, in 2009, HOPE (Hispanas Organized for Political Equality) would find that “Latina Spending power was $264 billion for that year alone.” There was going to be a tipping point. All one had to do was look at the data. Heck, all you had to do was step out of your front door and pay attention. Based on the numbers, things had to change. So I kept working on my craft and researching my market. I quietly charged forward with this crazy dream that there would one day be a space for us to create content that was culturally relevant to our demo. Except, of course, I had no clue when or how this would happen.
Then everything changed. Technology advanced. Camera equipment was no longer cost prohibitive. The Internet suddenly put worldwide distribution at our fingertips. It all seemed too good to be true. But, it was true. And it was good. And it changed everything. We suddenly had unprecedented access to create, produce and distribute our content. In this exciting new frontier, anyone could finally tell their stories from their point of view without getting discouraged, derailed or having their vision diluted. This was an empowering opportunity that had to be explored. So, with the encouragement of some amazing and talented friends who jumped in and helped make this production possible, I took that old script out of the files reconceived, rewrote, and produced it for the web.
In early 2008, we produced Ylse (www.Ylse.net). Ylse is a not-so-politically correct dramedy about an ambitious, single, thirty-something American Latina on her bumpy quest up the journalistic ladder and the quirky characters that make up her life. Think Bridget Jones with a bicultural twist. In our show, language is a secondary consideration to cultural relevancy. Ylse features modern progressive Latinos dealing with mainstream issues (like the angst of stumbling to achieve the American dream) while balancing our (very specific) dual identity crisis. There was a lot of diversity in front of and behind the cameras on our Ylse team too. And because we were union signatory, the directors on Ylse earned points towards their DGA membership. There was a market for our content and we were thrilled when the industry began to recognize its validity. In 2010, Ylse won the IMAGEN Award for Best Internet Series; the first in IMAGEN Award history.
Thanks to the open, neutral, non-discriminatory environment of the Internet, we finally had an unobstructed connection to a potential audience base, which meant that we could finally prove our market while encouraging others to follow suit. Some of the most rewarding moments of the entire process came in the form of emails from fans around the globe. Emails, which answered the question that had been asked so condescendingly years before, “Who is going to watch this?” Well as it turns out, lots of people. Our audience was even broader than I had anticipated. We didn’t just speak to Latinos, but to folks around the globe who could relate to having a bicultural experience:
“I hugely enjoyed Ylse yesterday, then read an interview with you, all the while marveling at how it is possible to come from opposite sides of the world and yet to end up so alike. I am a Russian-Jewish immigrant born in the former USSR (Ukraine). My family arrived in the US when I was eight….I now live in France with my family…“
– Julia Kogan/France
It thrilled me to hear we inspired others to find and express their voice:
“… I LOVE the show! It was perfect. As a Latina it just makes me so proud to know that something like Ylse not only exists, but is possible. You’ve inspired me to do write my own story about finding and using my voice.”
– Icess Fernandez /Blogger
We filled a gap:
“Just watched the show. Super funny and super impressive stuff! Thank god there’s something out there for the Spanglish speaking community. It’s like Sex and the City and Ugly Betty had a baby! Amazed!”
–Rudy Roque/Los Angeles
The press and celebrity friends were very encouraging. And further proved the scope of our potential audience:
“Ylse is a smart, funny show, and a powerful example of what independent series creators can accomplish in a new era of entertainment.”
-Eric Mortensen, Director of Content Development, Blip.tv
“…jumping between English and Spanish with an ease so well-written, English only audience members won’t even notice….Ylse’s dilemmas will strike a chord, with most young, cute, smart single girls.”
“ (Ylse)…goes beyond stereotypical boundaries.”
-Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show)
It was all very rewarding. In November 2009, I was featured on the cover of the Writers Guild of America’s Written By magazine for being the first person to join that union via work in New Media. It was a personal honor, but it was significant in essence because it meant that the industry was acknowledging that New Media was in fact a viable alternative way in for the rest of us. It meant that programming on the web was not up to the same few decision makers who control traditional media. No longer would low-budgets, no track-record or no connections mean there is no way in.
The experience has been exhausting, rewarding, empowering and eye-opening. (At one point, I even found myself in DC testifying at the FCC! But, that’s another story.) As an artist, a woman, a Latina, an immigrant and an entrepreneur, the web has afforded me unprecedented opportunities to participate in content creation and distribution. Hopefully our work will empower the next generation to follow suit. I hope that, to them, having a platform where they can express themselves on an equal playing field with anyone else is nothing out of the ordinary. Because for us, it has been nothing short of revolutionary:
-The open Internet has given the rest of us an opportunity to work on and improve our crafts.
-It has given us the opportunity to provide jobs and creative outlets for a more diverse workforce.
-It has allowed us to define ourselves by telling stories from our points of view.
-It has allowed us to create more varied, complex and positive portrayals of our demos.
-It has given us the ability to connect directly with our audience and prove our markets.
-It has given us the ability to connect with like-minded people around the globe.
-It has empowered and motivated us to create content, knowing there is a distribution outlet for it. (Plug: Stay tuned for my next show, Cousins).
The bottom line is, as long as the digital space remains neutral and does not go the way of traditional media (where a handful of gatekeepers decide what is viable entertainment), we will never again be disregarded by someone who essentially asks, “Who are you to have your story be told?” We all deserve to have our stories told. We all deserve to be heard, to be acknowledged, and to not have to sit in the shadows until someone else decides that our lives are worthy of being reflected in the media. The web is the great equalizer. It is a revolutionary platform of hope and opportunity where diverse voices can finally partake in the national conversation at all levels. Ylse was made possible only because of the neutral Internet.
Ruth Livier is the creator and star of Ylse. As an actor, Livier has worked in theater (Theater of the Ear’s 2012 Grammy-nominated The Mark of Zorro, Kirk Douglas Theatre’s A Perfect Wedding), television (Resurrection Blvd., King of the Hill) and film (Drag Me To Hell). She has been featured by Written By, TV Guide, Emmy, People en Espanol, among other publications. Livier has been a keynote speaker at the Latin Youth Conference, SAG, WGA, NALIP and Digital Hollywood. She is currently working on Cousins, a one-hour dramedy about three very different Latina cousins who end up having to live under one roof and somehow manage to keep it all together even though they drive each other up the wall.