By Meg James
Los Angeles Times
---- — LOS ANGELES — The star of this reality show is a Mexican immigrant who carries pink handcuffs.
The bounty hunter show “Fugitivos de la Ley: Los Angeles” boasts a cast that includes two real-life federal agents and a fireplug of a man, a former U.S. Marine from Riverside, Calif. There’s also a 29-year-old firefighter who grew up in Pacoima and is nicknamed “Bombero” — Spanish for fireman — and a German shepherd named Cooper.
“Fugitivos” is an attempt by the small bilingual cable channel Mun2 to boost its profile by tapping into the richness of L.A.’s Latino population to find compelling characters and stories.
“We are not your Hollywood-looking people, but we are as real as it gets,” said Roman Morales III, 48, the former Marine, who also is a former federal police officer and the father of five.
Cast members have real-life experience collaring criminals. The one with the pink handcuffs is Liliana Monique Covarrubias, a single mother who was born in Mexico, grew up in South L.A., received police training at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier, Calif., and now works for Lipstick Bail Bonds.
“I was just some chick, but they said they didn’t want an actress,” said Covarrubias, the only female cast member. “I love the show because it sets an example: If you do something wrong, we’re going to catch you.”
The show feels a bit like the former Fox series “Cops” or A&E’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” But for legal reasons, the chases depicted on “Fugitivos” are dramatizations, reenactments by the cast members and actors hired to play the bad guys. The cases are based on the group’s actual experiences.
“We wanted to do a deep dive into an area where there happened to be a lot of Latino professionals,” said Diana Mogollon, general manager of Mun2. “And we set the show in Los Angeles because we wanted to make it feel realistic and specific to the region.”
TV audiences have responded. “Fugitivos” has helped Mun2 grow its Sunday night first-quarter ratings 26 percent from the first quarter of 2012.
The tiny cable channel, owned by media giant NBCUniversal, is one of the few Latino networks headquartered in Los Angeles, even though L.A. is home to the nation’s largest Latino population. Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, Mun2’s big sister network, are in Miami.
But two-thirds of Latinos in the U.S. are of Mexican descent, making Los Angeles more representative of the country’s Latino population. That should give L.A. an edge as TV companies struggle to figure out how to engage young, bilingual Latinos, who are increasingly important to marketers.
“Being in L.A. gives us a unique advantage. You can’t be in Hispanic media and not understand the L.A. market,” Mogollon said. “One out of every two teenagers in L.A. is Hispanic.”
But Mun2 has never been a priority for the companies that have owned it. The channel’s resources long have been strained. According to consulting firm SNL Kagan, Mun2 generated about $54 million in revenue last year, about evenly split between ad revenue and programming fees paid by cable operators.
SNL Kagan estimated that the channel’s 2012 programming budget was $30 million — roughly half the amount that its sister network NBC spent to produce a season of a single show, the big-budget musical “Smash.” Comcast Corp., NBCUniversal’s owner, has pledged to invest more in its Latin networks.
Mun2’s viewership grew 24 percent last year over 2011 levels, but Nielsen estimates the network attracts a mere 100,000 viewers in prime time.
Its primary obstacle has been its limited distribution. Five years ago, Mun2 was available in 15 million homes. Now, it is available in 39 million homes, just over a third of all homes in the U.S. that subscribe to pay TV. The bilingual channel sometimes is offered only as part of a Spanish-language package.
“We need to grow, and we need scale,” Mogollon said. “Mun2 has always been a gem, and people are recognizing our value proposition. (As Latinos) we’re taking over the Vatican, we’re electing the U.S. president. Latinos are not just some niche market.”
The median age of Mun2’s audience is 29, making it attractive to advertisers who chase younger consumers.
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