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'I Love Jenni' carries on after Jenni Rivera's death

YVONNE VILLARREAL, Los Angeles Times

Publication: The Day

Published April 21. 2013 4:00AM

When it came to mass recognition in the United States, the late Latin music star Jenni Rivera used to say she wasn't Coca-Cola, and maybe she wasn't Pepsi either. But she wasn't going to let anyone tell her she wasn't at least akin to Fanta.

The sentiment - more colorfully expressed in Rivera's words according to friend and manager Pete Salgado during a recent interview - may partly explain why the Mexican regional superstar floated under the radar of most non-Spanish-language outlets before her death last year. More loosely, it's the sort of fun-loving, unfiltered confidence the Long Beach native revealed in her cable reality series "I Love Jenni," which aired on Mun2, Telemundo's Los Angeles-based bilingual cable network.

The series offered a peek inside the 43-year-old Rivera's chaotic lifestyle as a mother and in-charge music star who sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. Now four months after the banda and nortena singer's plane crashed, Mun2 on Sunday rolled out the third and last season of the series that helped put the decade-old network on the map.

"It's like we get to hang out with her a little while more," said Salgado, who is also an executive producer of the show.

The television show isn't the only medium poised to say farewell to the beloved singing star, whose birth name was Dolores Janney Rivera. Her memoir, "Unbreakable," is set to publish in Spanish and English in July.

Also, an English-language album the singer had been working on is expected to be released by the end of the year, an exhibition called "Jenni Rivera, La Gran Senora" will be on display at the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A starting in May, and there's been talk about a biopic as well.

Rivera's death raised an immediate question for the series - should it continue at all? Production, which wasn't supposed to wrap until March, had just started when her plane plunged 28,000 feet in 30 seconds over Mexico on Dec. 9.

First, the family had to decide. Rosie Rivera, Jenni's sister and a growing presence on the series, addressed Jenni's five children, who range in age from 12 to 27, in late December about the show's future. A decision was reached within 10 minutes.

"I spelled it out: I said you guys let me know. I'm not going to force you guys to do anything you don't want to do," recalled Rosie, who also served as co-host to Jenni's radio show, "Contacto Directo Con Jenni Rivera." "It was immediate. There was no pondering, 'Oh, it's going to be too hard' or 'I can't do it.' They were like, 'We're going to do this for mom.'"

In January, Jenni Rivera Enterprises Inc., the late singer's corporation, was one of four companies named in a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by the families of the four members of Rivera's entourage who were also killed in the plane crash. The cause of the luxury jet crash still has not been determined and may not be known for a year, according to authorities.

The family had no comment on the lawsuit, and their attorney added no decision has been made about whether they will pursue legal action against Starwood Management, the Las Vegas-based company that owned the jet.

This last season of "I Love Jenni" will unfold in chronological order, according to the network, and will be divided between the singer's life before the crash and her family's experiences after the tragedy.

A good part of this season originally was supposed to feature material from Rivera's experiences developing a new comedy for ABC, in which she would star as a struggling single mom. The pilot, from Robert L. Boyett ("Full House") and Robert Horn ("Designing Women"), was to begin casting in February.

Also, with Rivera gone, the confessional interviews with the star about events already filmed - a hallmark of the show - would have to be dropped.

"It was really hard looking back at some of the footage we had of her," said Shari Scorca, an executive producer on the show. "You realize she's not going to be there anymore. She's not there to let us in anymore."

In its first season, the show averaged 60,000 viewers watching live or within seven days using DVRs. Ratings jumped 34 percent in the second season - big numbers for the small network that averages about 100,000 viewers in prime time. The viewership helped establish the Rivera clan as the royal family of Mun2 - with specials and another spinoff launching from there.

"It was the brand-defining show for us," said Diana Mogollon, general manager of Mun2, which is owned by media giant NBCUniversal. "The network is 11 years old, but we're still in diapers. 'I Love Jenni' helped us find our groove. We had done reality before, but we hadn't found our secret sauce. Young Latinas have nothing out there for them. It really opened up a whole new world of possibilities."

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