Changing U.S. Audience Poses Test for a Giant of Spanish TV

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 10 12:35:53 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, March 10, 2006

Changing U.S. Audience Poses Test for a Giant of Spanish TV


LOS ANGELES, March 9 Rosa Guevara, a Mexican-American dental hygienist,
grew up with the Univision network's Spanish-language soap operas, which
she still watches. But Mrs. Guevara, 59, now watches alone. On any given
night, her husband is glued to a western on cable while her 25-year-old
daughter who used to watch the soaps with her, may tune in to "George
Lopez" on ABC or syndicated reruns of "Friends." "She doesn't like
telenovelas anymore," said Mrs. Guevara, who lives in Pico Rivera, an
overwhelmingly Latino city in Los Angeles County.

Households like the Guevaras' reflect an evolution in what was once the
unquestioned loyalty of the vast Latino audience in the United States,
where Univision is the giant of Spanish-language television. Catering to
the country's growing Latino population 40 million and counting Univision
now challenges ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, especially in big coastal cities
like New York, Los Angeles and Miami, occasionally beating them in the
ratings with its sexy, soapy prime-time shows. But as would-be buyers
prepare bids for Univision Communications, a consortium including Grupo
Televisa of Mexico, which supplies many of the network's shows, emerged
Thursday as a potential bidder. [Page C1.]

Any new owner would have to wrestle with the shifting dynamics of the
company's audience. More Latinos are American-born and English-speaking,
and their tastes in television are changing more quickly than Univision's
shows. That poses challenges not only for Univision but for other Spanish-
and English-language networks. For the first time, networks on each side
of the language divide could significantly expand their audiences by
pursuing the same demographic group: second- and third-generation Latinos
who are bilingual or speak mostly English and are as likely to watch "Fear
Factor"  on NBC as "El Gordo y la Flaca" ("The Scoop and the Skinny") on
Univision, and who are largely underserved in either language. "This
audience wants to be validated," said Jeff Valdez, founder of SiTV, a
two-year-old English-language cable network that caters to young Latinos
and multicultural urban youth. "They want to see themselves on screen.
They want to hear their stories."

The guidebook on how to appeal to this acculturated yet ethnically proud
audience is still a work in progress. SiTV strives for hipness with
programs like "Urban Jungle," a reality show in which 12 young
suburbanites move to South Central Los Angeles, and "The Rub," a talk show
about sex and relationships. MegaTV, a new Spanish-language television
station that was started in Miami this month by the Spanish Broadcasting
System radio chain, is offering such fare as an interactive debate show
and the television version of a prank-filled morning radio show.
Telemundo, the perennial No. 2 Spanish-language network to Univision that
is owned by NBC Universal, is, meanwhile, getting significant bumps in
prime-time ratings from new telenovelas and other one-hour dramas with
contemporary themes, sometimes set in the United States.

So far, Univision, whose officials declined to be interviewed, has
captured Latino audiences of all ages both by keeping English out of its
programs and commercials and by sticking to a prime-time lineup anchored
in telenovelas from Mexico. There has been little reason to change of the
100 most-watched Spanish-language shows in the United States, Nielsen
Media Research figures show, 90 are on Univision. But the ground is
shifting under this powerhouse. Births are outpacing immigration as the
main source of Latino growth, and these American-born Latinos already 60
percent of all Latinos are less likely to primarily speak Spanish and are
better educated, higher earners and more prone to marry outside their
ethnic group than the immigrant generations that preceded them. As
television viewers, a recent study found, they prefer programming in
English, though at least half also watch Spanish programs. Rosa Ruiz, 25,
an office assistant at the University of Southern California, said she did
not watch any Spanish-language television. Born in San Francisco to
Mexican parents, Ms. Ruiz said she grew up watching telenovelas with her
mother and Nickelodeon on her own; she now gravitates to reality shows
like "The Real World" on MTV and "Project Runway" on Bravo.

"English is what I usually speak and what I'm interested in watching," she
said. In this climate, the sale of Univision (along with Galavision, its
cable network, and Telefutura, Univision's other broadcast network) is
welcome news to those in Hispanic marketing and television circles who
hope a new owner is more open to investing in original made-in-America
productions, and even to flirting with English. "Imagine if this big giant
allowed for some sort of hybrid programming,"  said David R. Morse,
president and chief executive of New American Dimensions, which conducted
the study of younger Latino viewers.

"I think of them as a horse-and-buggy company," he said of Univision. "In
1910, 1920, people are going to want to drive automobiles, and you should
be getting into the automobile business." Media analysts expect Univision
to continue performing well for years to come, because there is plenty of
room to grow in viewership because of new immigration and in revenue
because advertisers have yet to catch up to Univision's audience. In a
conference call with analysts last week, Univision officials said that the
network attracted its largest audiences yet last year in the highly
desired markets of viewers 18 to 49 years old and those aged 18 to 34,
with gains of 17 percent and 23 percent, respectively, from 2004.

"There's still a lot of market demand for what they're currently
delivering," said David C. Joyce, an analyst with Miller Tabak. There is
also considerable worry about too much tinkering. Latino organizations
like the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal
Defense and Educational Fund have said they will monitor any sale of the
network, citing the role it plays for immigrants as a bridge between
cultures. John Trasvia, senior vice president for law and policy at the
legal defense fund, credited Univision with helping viewers stay informed
about their home countries while covering their local issues, particularly
through newscasts.

"It's something the other networks don't have to do," he said. "Obviously,
that's not a legal obligation, but there's a public role and
responsibility." Univision tested bilingual programming a few years ago on
Galavision, but abandoned the effort, citing low ratings. Lucia
Ballas-Traynor, Galavision's general manager at the time, said that the
experiment was controversial with Spanish traditionalists at the company
and also a hard sell to advertisers. "They'd say, Aren't we already
reaching them through MTV and UPN?" Ms.  Ballas-Traynor, now general
manager of MTV Espanol said, referring to advertisers.

That does not seem to be a question anymore.

"One of the questions we get asked by our clients more frequently that we
didn't get asked five years ago is, How do we reach the bilingual
Hispanic?" said Roberto Ruiz, managing director at La Agencia de Orc &
Asociados, a leading Hispanic marketing agency based in Los Angeles. "We
all understand that the market has nuances."

Suddenly, options seem to be coming from all directions. On the
English-language side, the major networks have announced plans to remake
telenovelas in English. Fox's new broadcast network, My Network TV, will
have a two-hour prime-time block of such soaps this fall, aimed at those
aged 18 to 49, with a special eye toward Latinos.

"It's a segment of the marketplace that can't be ignored," said Bob Cook,
president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television, the Fox
unit providing content for the new network. "They're extremely loyal and
they're large consumers of media."

Spanish broadcasters are counting on the strong identification Latinos
have with their Hispanic heritage. Telemundo's president, Don Browne, said
that Spanish-language television could keep up with English-speaking
Latinos because "it's about culture as much or more as language." But his
network has also been playing it safe for the last four years with mun2, a
bilingual cable network for young Latinos.

Cynthia Hudson-Fernandez, executive vice president and chief creative
officer of Spanish Broadcasting System, said the company's new Miami
television station is pursuing Latinos 18 to 49 no matter where they were
born or what hyphenated national group they belong to.

"These are a new generation of people who have a very broad perspective,"
she said. "They don't have to prove that they're one thing or another to
be comfortable as Americans. If it's quality programming, they don't care
if it's English or Spanish."

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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