By Richard D. Hoffmann, Hispanic Magazine

Back in the 20th century, if you were Hispanic and wanted to watch television, you watched news, variety shows and telenovelas (soap operas) on the local Spanish-language channel.

Today, English-language programming for Hispanic television audiences—particularly the brand-conscious younger generation—is offering an alternative.

The cable TV industry now has two networks—the independent SiTV network, which launched in 2004, and mun2, the 2001 spin-off of NBC’s Telemundo—that air programming aimed at the 18-to-34-year-old English-dominant Hispanic audience.

Mun2 (pronounced “mundos,” or “two worlds”) recently repositioned itself to include more English in its “Spanglish” programming. SiTV has gone the English-language route since its inception.

Meanwhile, broadcast television features a number of English-language shows aimed at second- and third-generation acculturated Hispanics (those who identify themselves as both Hispanic and American). Since April 2002, Maximus Productions and AIM Tell-A-Vision (AimTV), both subsidiaries of New York-based Artist and Idea Management, Ltd., have been producing and marketing shows like LatiNation, Sonidos, Urban Latino and now, American Latino. AimTV says it airs in 60 million homes, almost exclusively through broadcast syndication. SiTV says it reaches 10.5 million Hispanic homes via cable, while mun2 claims 10 million.

Most U.S. Latinos are bilingual, 54.7 percent, say Census data—and consume media in both Spanish and English. The 2002 National Survey of Latinos by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 46 percent of second-generation and 78 percent of third-generation adult Hispanics speak mostly English.

One of the earliest attempts at cracking the English-dominant, bilingual youth market was made by Spanish-language media giant Univision. The programming aired in 2001 on its cable subsidiary Galavision. But the attempt was such a dismal failure according to media industry reports, that Univision returned to its profitable and proven all-Spanish format in 2002 and has not looked back.

Univision executives would not comment on why its foray into non-Spanish-language programming failed. But its ratings underscore its success with tried-and-true programming that’s heavy on novelas. Nielsen rankings during the September 2004 to May 2005 broadcast season saw Univision’s Spanish-language programming capture 58 percent of prime-time Hispanic viewers, versus 42 percent who watched English-language broadcasts.

But it is lifestyle and music, not novelas, that makes up most English-language programming aimed at younger Hispanics. For good reason: A study by research firm Youth Intelligence revealed that 48 percent of 14- to 24-year-old Latinos identify themselves as bilingual and say music plays a big part in their lives. Radio’s success with the “hurban” format—short for “Hispanic/urban”— recognizes that fact, and lends credence to the cross-cultural direction that TV is taking. A growing number of radio stations feature English-language DJs playing a combination of English-language rap and R&B mingled with Latin rap, pop and reggae.

Antoinette Zel, senior vice president of network strategy for Telemundo, says she has expanded mun2’s target age group to include even younger viewers, aged 12 to 17. “Latino youth are drivers of pop culture and are the cultural ambassadors of their families,” Zel says. “They are growing by leaps and bounds. The number of native-born Latinos will double in the next 15 years.

“Young Latinos exist in two worlds,” she adds—and she believes mun2’s programming reflects that reality.

Bruce Barshop and Jeff Valdez, co-founders of SiTV, recognized that same cultural trend when they formed the company in 1997. But the wave was slow in forming, and Valdez, already a veteran producer, labored for seven years to realize the 2004 premier of SiTV, in large part because advertisers were reluctant to commit to his new vision.

“When I look at the Hispanic part of our audience, 60 percent of them are English-speaking, U.S.-born,” Valdez says. “That’s 60 percent of maybe $800 billion of Hispanic spending power. That has never been validated by television,” he says, estimating that advertisers spend only three percent of their budgets on programming aimed specifically at that segment. “MTV and Comedy Central are my largest competitors.”

Overlooked Market

Total Hispanic television ad expenditures, growing about 25 percent a year, are estimated this year to come in upwards of $3.5 billion. The lion’s share, as usual, will go to Spanish-language TV.

“We are targeting one of the biggest under-served markets in the nation,” says Rob Rose, a 20-year TV industry veteran who left his job at Univision to found Artist and Idea Management in February 2000. Rose says that ad revenue for the English-language Hispanic market is expected to reach only about $500 million by 2010.

The shortfall, he believes, is a result of poor ratings methodology employed by Nielsen, the only game in town when it comes to gauging viewer numbers. Ultimately, the competition for viewers comes down to ratings, since ratings translate into advertising dollars.

“Research says that the biggest determining factor on whether an individual will consume TV in English or Spanish is where they were born,” Rose says. “Born in the U.S.A., they watch mostly English-language television; born elsewhere, they watch Spanish-language TV.”

“Nielsen simply does not know what percentage of their sample is U.S.-born versus foreign-born, and so have no way of knowing whether they are under representing or over representing a segment,” Rose complains. “We believe they are over-indexing immigrating Latinos, and that’s the biggest holdup to our market’s growth.” Nielsen has made public statements that it’s working on the problem. When that glitch is fixed, English-language programming for Latinos may boom.

In the meantime, the success or failure of Hispanic-themed TV shows won’t depend solely on language. “It’s hard to describe what makes a show a hit among young, acculturated Hispanics,” observes. Michele Valdovinos, vice president of research and marketing for Cultural Access Group. “But it must have resonance for those with a foot in both worlds. They don’t want to be one or the other.”

Concurs SiTV’s Valdez: “There’s this misconception of a Hispano-centric world where the younger generation hangs only with other Hispanics. It’s just not true. We look at this audience as the new general market. We want to reach anybody who likes good programming. Period.”

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•Why There Are No Asians On TV is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.