LOS ANGELES -- ABC sitcom star George Lopez was a guest on "Good Morning America" last month when he got a friendly reminder about his part in the network's rebuilding effort.
"Charles Gibson leans toward me during the commercial and says, 'You know, my Christmas bonus is riding on your show,"' Lopez recalled. "As we were ending the interview I said, 'Let me be the first one to wish you Feliz Navidad."'
Merry Christmas, indeed, for the Walt Disney Co. network as "George Lopez" has demonstrated ratings muscle in the 8:30 p.m. EST Wednesday slot following Damon Wayans' "My Wife and Kids."
It's part of ABC's "happy hour" strategy, trying to level the playing field against leaders NBC and CBS by snaring a broad family audience in the first hour of prime time - and then attempting to hold them for the night.
Through Oct. 30, "George Lopez" was the most-watched program in its time slot, drawing 12 million viewers (versus 11 million for runner-up "Ed" on NBC). It's also the leader with the advertiser-favored contingents of teenagers and adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The series, which had an initial brief run as a midseason replacement last May, "has been a crucial player in our 8 to 9 o'clock success," said Stephanie Leifer, ABC's senior vice president for comedy programming.
The network recently ordered 22 episodes, a full season's worth.
With the promising start for Lopez's show and other new series including "8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter," ABC executives say the network has begun to rebound from last season's dismal 23 percent drop in viewership.
"We couldn't be happier with how this has gone thus far, but at the same time recognize there's quite a bit of work left to do," said Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman.
Lopez's show is one of those helping build "bone" in the schedule, Braun said.
Drawn from stand-up comedian Lopez's life, the show casts him as an assembly line worker newly promoted to manager at an airplane parts plant. On the home front, he and wife Angie (Constance Marie) manage their two children (Luis Armand Garcia, Masiela Lusha) and joust with George's tough-as-nails mother, Benny (Belita Moreno).
Beyond obvious beneficiaries ABC, Disney and Lopez himself, the sitcom has brought satisfaction to a wider circle - especially critics of network TV's diversity in programming.
"I guarantee you that there are a lot of people at ABC and the other networks that are pretty astonished viewers are willing to watch 'George Lopez,"' said Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza in Washington.
The networks' belief that programs with predominantly Hispanic casts won't play with non-Hispanic audiences is misguided, Navarrete said.
"What 'George Lopez' and other shows like it needed was more than one episode or a couple episodes to get through to the American public," she said.
The council and other Hispanic advocacy groups point to another sitcom that features Hispanic characters, the WB's "Greetings from Tucson." Like "George Lopez," the WB series has posted high enough ratings to receive an order for additional episodes.
"People are ready" for ethnic diversity, said Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition in Los Angeles. And broadcast networks were finally able to get Hispanic comedy right, he added.
Two failed efforts with Paul Rodriguez, "A.K.A. Pablo" in 1984 and "Trial and Error" in 1988, didn't allow him an authentic voice, Nogales said. "With this one, I recognize George very easily. He speaks from the heart."
Lopez's series is reminiscent of Bill Cosby's comedy. "George Lopez" is flavored by the family's ethnicity but doesn't make it a dominant element. And, as with Cosby, the humor tends toward the whimsical and keeps a safe distance from the salacious.
Lopez is glad to mull over his show's acceptance by both Hispanic and non-Hispanic audiences, which has made him "as thrilled as I've ever been."
"I just show them the reality, that we live amongst you, we eat amongst you and we are just as dysfunctional as you are - but we do it with better-colored skin," Lopez said, unable to resist a quip.
The show had a starry genesis. Actress Sandra Bullock, who had fond memories of the 1970s Freddie Prinze sitcom "Chico and the Man," was struck by the lack of comedies featuring Hispanic characters.
She and a friend tried to cook up a project but then, Bullock recalled, had the good fortune to meet Lopez.
"He's got an energy, he's got a look, he's got something so likable about him. But he's still from the street, he still has that edge," she said.
The series counts Bullock and sitcom veteran Bruce Helford ("Roseanne," "The Drew Carey Show") among its quartet of executive producers. The actress also is offering on-screen support during the November ratings sweeps, guest starring in this week's episode.
Whether the show would have caught ABC's attention without Bullock attached is a question that doesn't faze groups pressing for a greater Hispanic TV presence.
"It's the reality of the business," said Navarrete. "Hopefully, there will be a day when you can say a Constance Marie is a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood."
An effort is being made to hire Hispanic crew members and writers, including grooming future writers, the producers said. Hispanic involvement is crucial for success, said Lopez.
"I think I have ruined it for every Anglo writer, producer, executive out there who thinks because his housekeeper is doing such a great job with (their child) Cole that he can write a show Latino people are going to find interesting," the comedian said.
One person Lopez figures to please, however, is Gibson at "Good Morning America."
"I'm going to send him a Christmas card. All it's gonna say is Feliz Navidad."
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