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 Holly-wood-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 Hunt-er." 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 NBC-Universal, 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 Tele-mundo, 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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After trying to create an identity with music videos and reruns of Telemundo's prime-time soaps, Mun2 found its voice with the help of the late Latin music star Jenni Rivera, who died in December in a plane crash in Mexico. The network is running the final season of her reality show, "I Love Jenni," with footage shot before her death.
"Jenni was a game changer for the network," Mogollon said. "She really planted a flag in biculturalism - living in two worlds and speaking two languages, Spanish and English, which is a large part of our identity as Latinos."
During the last year, Mun2's most popular show has been "Larrymania," which features Mexican regional singer Larry Hernandez, who grew up in Mexico but like Rivera was born in L.A. Although Rivera and her family largely spoke English on her show, Hernandez mostly speaks Spanish, illustrating the blending of cultures and languages that Mun2 attempts to showcase.
In "Fugitivos," English subtitles appear on screen when the bounty hunters speak Spanish. Networks targeting Latinos have debated for years over which language would be better to reach bilingual audiences. About 52 percent of Mun2's audience is bilingual.
"It's not just about doing it in Spanish or English. The real question is how to tell compelling stories," said John Gallegos, chief executive of Grupo Gallegos, a Huntington Beach ad agency that specializes in Latin media and represents JCPenney Co., Clorox Co. and the California Milk Processor Board, among others.
Bilingual viewers are not limited to the Spanish-language networks. They are as comfortable watching CBS, Fox, Discovery and ESPN.
"Reaching this audience comes down to the quality of the content," Gallegos said. "These networks need resources to put out the best entertainment they can."
The producer of "Fugitivos," a former Marine and "Operation Repo" show producer Lou Pizarro, believes that Mun2 is doing that now.
"Latinos have had to fight to get into the mainstream, and Mun2 has been huge for us. They have helped empower our people," he said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services