[lg policy] U.S. Census Uses Telenovela to Reach Hispanics

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 23 16:09:37 UTC 2009

U.S. Census Uses Telenovela to Reach Hispanics


MIAMI — Perla Beltrán, a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks
in New York, has suffered a great deal lately — her husband, a thief,
has been murdered and she has been associating with lowlifes. But she
thinks she has found a way out: as a recruiter for the United States
Census Bureau. Ms. Beltrán, a character in the popular
Spanish-language soap opera “Más Sabe el Diablo,” “The Devil Knows
Best,” represents only one element of the government’s yearlong effort
to garner trust among Hispanics, an ethnic group that has been
historically wary of the decennial census process. In addition to the
typical public service announcements and advertisements, the Census
Bureau is helping to compose a remarkable story line featuring the
Perla Beltrán character on the telenovela, amid the genre’s usual
tales of sex scandals, unspeakable illnesses and implausible villains.
It may be the first plotline on a soap opera blessed by the United
States government.

“It’s the perfect vehicle for product placement,” said Patricia
Gaitan, a communications consultant for the bureau, as she watched the
taping here last week. She swiftly gave the technique a new name:
“people placement.” The coordination between the Census Bureau and the
“Diablo” producers at the Telemundo network also strikes some as an
unusual intrusion by the government. Although a bureau staff member
met with the writer of “Diablo” and provided props for the production,
the network’s president, Don Browne, said it maintained “total
creative independence.”  Many Americans are unfamiliar with
telenovelas like “Diablo,” and most efforts to introduce them to
English-speaking audiences have flopped. But among Spanish-speaking
viewers, the five-nights-a-week dramas are enormously popular, making
them a prime way to encourage Hispanics to be counted next year.

“We’ve been evangelizing,” Mr. Browne told Ms. Gaitan and other
visitors between takes on the set last week. “Hopefully, we’ll get the
message across without hitting viewers over the head.” The message is
the same one Census Bureau officials are trying to emphasize at nearly
every turn: Do not be afraid to be counted.  Next year’s census is
expected to show a substantial increase in the Hispanic population,
which is already the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United
States. The government estimated in May that 46.9 million Hispanics
lived in the Unites States last year, up from about 33 million during
the last census in 2000. Census figures are analyzed to apportion
Congressional districts and distribute about $400 billion in federal
money each year.

But the census is a delicate subject for some minorities, including
Hispanics. Language barriers and fear of filling out forms for the
government limited participation in earlier counts.  Census officials
contend that Hispanics were undercounted in 2000 by about 0.7 percent,
or roughly a quarter of a million people. Other scientific studies
assert that as many as 1.3 million Hispanics were not counted. With
the census story line, “we’re trying to fight the fear,“ Aurelio
Valcarcel, an executive producer at Telemundo Studios, said.
The campaign is not merely about civic participation. Next year’s
count is likely to mean more advertising revenue for Telemundo, a unit
of NBC Universal, and other Spanish-language networks over time.
Nielsen Ratings sample of television households is directly tied to
the census results.

“It’s very good for our business,” Mr. Browne said in an interview,
given that the census numbers should help substantiate audience
growth. With the enduring debates over immigration, some people are
wary of giving their name, address and information about their
household to the government. “In some cases they’re trying to hide
from the government,” said Stacy Gimbel, a bureau spokeswoman who
observed the taping. “We’re trying to convince them that their
information is safe.”

Next year, in a first for the bureau, about 13 million households will
receive census questionnaires in English and Spanish. But other issues
compound the bureau’s challenge in trying to achieve a comprehensive

Some advocates warn that the recession has forced more families to
share a single residence, sometimes in violation of housing codes or
leases. Those families may be reluctant to provide information, said
Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of
Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Some Hispanic religious leaders are urging their congregations to
boycott the count, which will begin next spring, as a way of forcing
Congress to act on immigration reform. Most Hispanic advocacy groups
oppose such a move.

Telemundo is taking a stand in favor of the census, though it says it
covers other points of view in its news programs. Mr. Vargas said
Telemundo and Univision, the country’s dominant Spanish-language
network, which is conducting a public service campaign of its own,
were being “good corporate citizens.”

Telemundo producers started considering a census plot in the spring at
the start of the network’s yearlong campaign to increase census
participation. Eventually a census employee worked directly with the
writer of “Diablo.”

In an episode that will be shown in early October, Ms. Beltrán is
selling empanadas, stuffed pastries, on the street when a Census
Bureau employee approaches her. The ensuing conversation amounts to
Census 101, explaining why the count matters.

Soon Ms. Beltrán, who is played by Michelle Vargas, will become a
census worker. At the Telemundo Studios last week, Ms. Beltrán was
shown completing a skills test for her census job application. After
handing in the test, she asks about the census, and the test
administrator tells her that the information collected is
“estrictamente confidencial,” or strictly confidential.

Mr. Valcarcel said previous novelas had included social messages about
drug abuse and workplace violence. Working with a government agency,
though, is a new strategy. He said he wanted the census information to
feel as organic as possible. “I don’t want to feel like it’s a
Discovery Channel documentary,” he said.

Ms. Gaitan and other consultants smiled as they watched the taping and
spotted census pamphlets and logos on the set. “Do you see all the
brochures?” one of the marketers asked.

“Diablo” ends its run next February. While the network has not
determined if it will add census plots to any other telenovelas, Mr.
Browne said that another contemporary series was in the works that
would “lend itself to this.”

For more traditional forms of communication, the government has
allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for census community
outreach, part of which will be devoted to Spanish-language

Although it is hard to put a dollar figure on the people placement in
“Diablo,” it may prove to be even more valuable.

Spanish-language networks say they have struggled for years to achieve
advertising budget parity with the broader media marketplace.
Post-census, Mr. Browne contends, they will be much closer to that

In a business presentation last year for his bosses at NBC’s parent
company, General Electric, Mr. Browne concluded by saying, “If you
think it’s a good business now, wait until after the census.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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