If You Saw How Viera Got Back Up

The end of Jorge Viera’s career at Univision was slow in coming. He had threatened to leave in recent years, only to have Univision talk him into staying, he recalls. But then in April of 2017, he arrived at Univision’s headquarters in Teaneck, New Jersey, to discover that he was being laid off along with several other journalists, for economic reasons. Of course, Viera was a bit bothered to lose his job, but decided he could leave on his own terms. 

His last farewell to Univision 41 New York, the show Viera anchored, unfolded on Facebook Live from 43rd Street and Broadway, the heart of Times Square.. “Thank you very much for that special affection,” Viera told his then one million-plus viewers. “Projects continue, life continues, and whoever sows with tears, reaps with joys. Never stop dreaming. I always smile and I will continue to smile because God put me on this earth for great things.” 

For the past 17 years Viera has worked as a news correspondent in the United States, Latin America, Spain and Russia. With his oblong face and heart-curved haircut, he is known as “the most recognized face in the city of New York,” as put on his Facebook page. His long journalistic trajectory has earned him five gold microphones from Radio & Television News Association of Southern California for “Best Reporting from the scene,” three Emmy nominations, and an appearance on the History Channel for having covered one of the 50 most striking stories of the last century.

Viera was also honored with a #41 jersey at Yankees Stadium for Hispanic Heritage Month, shown on The Jumbotron to celebrate his 20-year role on television networks in New York.  He was also one of the few U.S.-based journalists to interview President Hugo Chávez before his passing. viera, in English, translates to the word “saw” and the way fans at Times Square saw him was as a “television icon.” 

“He knows how to navigate between [Spanish and english] and his connection with people is organic,” explained Roberto Lacayo, director of the NY1 channel and one of his most recent partners.

Viera got into reporting thirty years ago, while he was searching for purpose and passion. First he tried acting in Los Angeles. Antonio Banderas was the guy he wanted to emulate. “I didn’t know anything about acting, never took classes but I used to watch Antonio in movies and I wanted to be him,” Viera laughs. “You have to understand, back then, I was a pretty boy.” 

Viera tried out for various commercials and many told him to go back to acting school. He finally got his 15-second debut as a cop in a 1995 romance telenovela called “Morelia.” He went to arrest a guy and accidentally punched him in the face. “Debuted and fired,” Viera laughs, describing how his Hollywood dream was crushed. 

Originally from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, now known as Guaynabo City, Viera was born into a working class family, living with his three brothers and both parents. His father was a university professor in Puerto Rico, then a lawyer who eventually opened his own local school. His mother was an executive of a telephone company that started with one worker and grew to have 12,000. They had solid jobs, but as their marriage unraveled, Viera’s childhood also suffered. Diagnosed with ADHD, young Jorge was kicked out of eight schools, including military school. 

He remembers not being able to focus or stay still and getting into frequent fights. But his charm won supporters, too. In a conversation with his high school principal, he told her: “You either pass me and we both move on with our lives or you throw one more kid into the streets.” “She giggled and graduated me in 15 seconds,” he remembers.“She knew I was going to turn out ok.”

‘Ok’ is exactly how it went afterwards. Viera majored in hotel administration in Miami with a concentration in casinos, “something easy” to change his lifestyle and push forward. He moved back to Puerto Rico and got his dealer’s license to work in casinos. Although he did not love school, he decided to take the GMAT and applied for a masters degree at the University of Las Vegas. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles, after a friend invited him to a commercial casting in LA. Following his short-lived acting career, the Jorge Viera that his following knows and loves today was born. 

Viera recorded a demo tape where he pretended to be a reporter on Hollywood Boulevard and gave it to Sandra Thomas, the then-Los Angeles director of Telemundo.  “You know this is all false, right?” she told him after watching it. Yes, Viera acknowledged, but he assured her that if given the opportunity, he would give it his all. “She taught me to be a reporter,” says Viera. “She taught me how to write, how to sound convincing and how to be my normal self on camera.” 

Six months later, he found himself reporting an intense Ak-47 shootout between the Russians and LAPD during a bank robbery for Telemundo, making headlines and billboards in LA. (This was the reportage that won Viera a place on the History Channel.) “I didn’t own a suit yet and they almost killed me,” recounts Viera as he remembers just barely dodging bullets behind a parking post and in between cars. 

From there, Viera continued covering gangs, hurricanes, mafias and anything that had to do with violence and action. He says he enjoyed this type of reporting because he always had a way with criminals and public officials. “I started to find my wild side and ran with it,” says Viera. “I was never a criminal but I was always able to connect with them.”

His friends and colleagues like to joke that Viera likes trouble. “If there was a hurricane, he had to be there, if there was a protest, he had to be there,” says his former Univision partner and cameraman, Cesar Serra.

After 10 years of reporting for Telemundo, Viera quit to start a show in his native home, Puerto Rico. Things didn’t quite work out and when Univision in Miami called him back he accepted. He was hired back to do a 10-12 minute investigative show every Sunday for Aqui y Ahora,“the best television job of his lifetime,” as he puts it. He got behind the scenes hands-on experience, learning how to write and structure a script for a serious broadcast. 

He was bounced around several other shows within Univision until he moved to Spain, to join Univision Sports, where he covered  their top two teams: Real Madrid and Barcelona, of Spain’s top soccer league. “I didn’t know anything about sports back then and I don’t know anything about it now but journalism is knowing how to tell a story,” says Viera. 

His sports broadcasting contract with Univision was up after two years but during his stint there, he caught the attention of a Russian journalist who needed a sports anchor in Moscow. “This was like my Pandora’s box,” says Viera. “A Puerto Rican going to work for a Russian news outlet that can be construed as a North American spy.” But  he took the job and moved to Russia. “Economically, the Russians are ahead 50 or 10 years but civically, they are in prehistory: they don’t know how to make a single file line,” says Viera as he recalls himself fainting outside the airport in the middle of the throngs of people. After Russia, Viera returned to Univision in Miami, this time as Jorge Ramos’ news co-anchor on the National Univision news program.

In 2013, Viera was moved yet again to Univision 41 in New York to take over Jorge Pineda’s position after four decades. Here, he was the main anchor of the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscast alongside Adriana Vargas. At the time, Univision was number one among all Spanish speaking news networks in the tri-state area with more than one million nightly viewers. “Back then, social media wasn’t as big but even the Chinese were watching us,” exclaimed Viera.

It was April 3rd, 2017, his first day back from a week-long vacation in Spain, when Human Resources told him at the office that Univision was letting him go. The reason was economic struggles that the chain was going through. Or so Viera was told.

“After fifteen years working as a television reporter, I decided it was time to quit and start from scratch,” writes Viera in his memoir. 

There’s no doubt that the firings took a hard toll. Viera moved his family to Barcelona in search of a new beginning and better education for his kids. While packing, he found one last box, a memory box filled with his achievements as a reporter. He took it to his brother, in Orlando with one simple instruction: “Take good care of them,” Viera told him. The box was “the only thing left of my career.”

“If a reporter was lucky, his career can be resumed in two boxes but if he’s just average, he will only have a shoebox,” added Viera.

Viera released his first book titled De Todo menos Perfecto, “Everything but Perfect,” while in Russia. He wrote the book in two years during his time in Spain along with a Catalonian collaborator. The book details his experiences as a reporter and foreshadows his breakup with Univision. “I wrote this book, because to embrace the future you have to say goodbye to the past.”

Originally, he says, he wanted to resign in 2013 because he wasn’t happy with how the studio was running things but Univision asked him to stay on and transferred him to the Big Apple. When he was released, Viera felt confused and betrayed but not sad. “I told them I wanted to leave…and then…they fire me?”

In his autobiography, Viera writes that he wanted out and forced Univision to fire him. Realizing that people between the ages of 18 and 45 were not watching the news and that they needed to be more active on social media, he says he made suggestions to the network that they didn’t understand. As a result, he asked to be included in the cuts and to receive his last payment to start over and reinvent himself. “Emotions played a big factor in how things ended,” says Viera. According to articles written published at the time about the layoffs, he was let go for economic reasons. Univision’s director and manager both declined to comment.

“Since you ended things badly, I’m going to my people, in Times Square and say what really happened,” Viera thought to himself. “I didn’t say anything bad because I don’t have anything against the network but it was important for people to know how I felt.” 

More than one million people tuned in on Facebook Live to watch the Times Square scene of Viera’s television journey come to an end. His longtime friend and Univision’s cameraman was among the many online viewers and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “That guy is crazy,” Serra laughs, remembering the moment. “If I got fired, I would run home to my room, lock the door and think what’s next, but he spoke to his fans first,” he added.

After watching his friend wave goodbye with a big smile and press the “end” button to finish the broadcast, Serra’s phone rang. It was Viera. “Bro! Guess what? He began shouting. “They just kicked me out like a garbage bag.” Serra thought he was sad and down but the opposite was what he heard next: “This is the best thing that could’ve happened to me,” Viera added. “You will see.” Moments after Viera left the anchor chair, the networks’ rating dropped, in popularity, from first to fourth among Spanish language evening news broadcasts. “Immediately after I left, they didn’t have a clear next step and they went down, explained Viera. “Now they say they’re number one again but Telemundo also says that — I don’t know who’s telling the truth,” added Viera.

On his own, Viera was finally able to bring life to his ideas, reinvent himself and still have an impact. After noticing the lack of targeted audience at Univision and that nobody ever really attracted the young millennial group, he set out to win over that age group as his main audience. He talked about his plan with Serra. “Remember that idea we were talking about?” he asked. “Let’s get that started.”

Six months after leaving Univision, Viera started his own TV show La Calle TV, (The Street TV). Faster news on social media was the idea. Oftentimes on a television network, since the program is scripted and limited on time, a lot of good stories get dropped or postponed.

 “The idea was to create a space that can be both fast and direct,” says Serra.

Today, La Calle TV is the only bi-lingual  social media driven news outlet, aimed for the significantly underserved 56 million plus strong Hispanic population within the U.S.. It covers breaking  news, entertainment, sports, fashion, lifestyle, food, and music. 

Currently, the platform consists of ten reporters, ranging from correspondents to videographers to writers. The writers release two text stories every hour until 5 pm on their website and the correspondents post on all social media every half hour all day. Where do the story ideas come from? The street. “We live in New York! Something is always happening, just walk,” says Viera.

“Jorge always wanted to get out” on the street, says Serra. “He needed to interact with his people, the New Yorkers!” 

Viera notes that the road to this comeback was hard but at least now, people are noticing him and he’s starting to compete with the big networks. He said Univision called him back but he declined. He said he told them they would have to sign a contract with La Calle TV and accept his whole team and that Univision refused. Univision refused to comment and did not confirm Viera’s account. 

Instead, in late 2018,  Roberto Lacayo, NY1 director, made him an offer and NY1 signed a joint contract with La Calle TV, where every weekend Jorge would interview and broadcast a feature on small, start-up businesses for Spectrum. 

La Calle TV has been able to stay alive through short term contracts with various television networks from Puerto Rico to Miami and New York; these are small financial contracts in exchange for Jorge and his shows’ content. For Viera, success is not measured by the amount of followers but rather engagements that his social posts attract — how many people like, comment, save and share his content. During the height of the pandemic, when La Calle TV was one of the few teams on the ground 24/7, they reached 12k people, had a post engagement of 2.5 million and 300k new followers, according to Viera. “Our numbers have risen spectacularly,” he says. Three years in, the platform has been able to reach 18.6 million people and has had more than 3 million post engagements.

Viera and Lacayo had known each other since 2012, when they both used to work for Univision. Lacayo hopes to keep this work collaboration going for many years to come. “The contract gives the option to be renewed every year but we do want to keep him,” added Lacayo.

Viera is a COVID-19 survivor. During a protest on election week, a guy sneezed on Viera’s face and the next day he had a high fever and couldn’t speak. “I like to talk a lot but for a whole week, I was quiet,” says Viera. “I felt beat.” 

On October 9th, Primer Impacto followed Viera on a father’s journey to his kids amidst the pandemic. The feature starts off with the latest COVID-19 statistics followed by Viera crying, saying that every day he prays on his knees that he could see his kids again. He takes a trip with three stops: London, Portugal and Spain with each flight almost empty because of the travel restrictions. At the Barcelona airport, they took his temperature and he continued with his trip in a taxi. Knock knock! Who’s there? Viera awaited the open door with his arms spread wide and the objective of hugging his twins was achieved. Days later, Viera went live on Facebook, crying and saying goodbye to his children. 

“I thought Jorge was going to be depressed and sad when he lost his job but no,” says Serra. “The only time I’ve seen him cry is when he has to leave his kids.”

“When I say bye to my kids, I cry a lot,” Viera says recently at an outdoor table in Times Square. But his girlfriend has given some wise words to help him cope with his emotions. “The only thing you can do for them is fill their heads with beautiful memories.”

Viera, 50, now lives with his girlfriend Anna Barbi, also a former Univision correspondent. Jan and Alexia, his twins, both 12 years old, reside in Barcelona with their mom. Jan is extroverted and talks a lot like his father. “He says he wants to be like me, a television host,” Viera smiles “I just want him to be happy.”

Getting up from his seat and picking up his jacket and coffee from the table, Viera takes one look at the red stairs of Times Square and starts walking. It’s 5:30 and the latest video coverage has been posted by his girlfriend to all social media platforms. “I’m going to see what’s going today because La Calle TV reports from the street, for the street!”

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