Skip to main content

A Language Lesson

TV executives hoping to win the hearts and minds of Hispanic consumers often find themselves faced with a lesson in linguistics and culture. Should they rely on Spanish- or English-language programming—or should it be a mix of both?

Answers to those questions will help allocate the billions in ad revenues that are targeted toward America’s largest and fastest-growing ethnic group. Unfortunately, they also tend to trigger some very divisive political and cultural debates over immigration and the future of U.S. culture.

For the moment, most networks have opted for the Spanish-only option. Virtually all of the 75-plus networks targeting the Hispanic community offer only Spanish-language programming. Even GolTV, which offers both Spanish and English feeds for its soccer programming, suggests that operators take the Spanish feed if they want to be most effective in targeting Latinos.

Increasingly, though, programmers are using English-language programming to attract younger Latinos. After months of research, Mun2 has decided to go the bilingual route with its revamped programming strategy, notes Antoinette Zel, senior executive VP, network strategy, at Telemundo. On-screen talent and interview subjects will speak either English or Spanish. That’s because the network’s target demo—young Hispanics—lives in both Latino and Anglo cultures.

Says Zel, “They modify their behavior day-to-day and minute-to-minute in terms of the social setting.”

Scores of young Latinos are fluent in English, adds Daniel Crowe, president of LATV, which offers primarily English-language programming alongside some Spanish fare. “They consume media in both languages,” he says. “People who ignore them are missing a very large audience.”

Yet many networks continue to do just that. “The reality is that Hispanics have been invisible on the [English-language] networks,” states Jeff Valdez, co-founder and chairman of Sí TV. “This is the largest ethnic group in America, and only one Hispanic—George Lopez—has a show on network television.”

Seeing the demand for Latino-themed English- language programming, Valdez produced the hit Nickelodeon show TheBrothers Garcia in 2000. In 2004, he launched English-language Sí TV, which targets Hispanics and multicultural audiences between the ages of 18 and 34, with shows like urban-music and -culture variety show The Drop. Now available in about 10 million homes, the network attracted 34 advertisers its first year and has 60 now. “Advertisers understand the importance of this demo,” Valdez says.

Conversely, ABC last week said its entire prime time lineup will be available in Spanish this fall, with hits Desperate Housewives and Lost dubbed and available on an SAP channel, joined by new sitcom Freddieand The George Lopez Show, which has been dubbed since its 2001 debut. The other shows will be close-captioned. ABC says half of the nation’s 41 million U.S. Hispanics watch only or mostly Spanish-language TV.

So there is little doubt that Spanish-language programming remains enormously popular. This summer, the top 20 programs among Hispanic households in the U.S. were all in Spanish. And all of them aired on Univision. In fact, the rapidly growing Hispanic audience made Univision the fifth-ranked U.S. network among all American households this summer. And it did even better in the 18-34 demo, in which it ranked second after Fox, notes David Woolfson, senior VP of network research, Univision Networks.

But the Hispanic population should not be viewed as a simple, monolithic Spanish-speaking mass, warns Adriana Waterston, director, marketing and business development, at Horowitz Associates, which specializes in multicultural research.

“The Latino community is very diverse and often very diverse within the same household,” she explains. In urban U.S. homes, for example, the Horowitz Associates’ Focus: Latino study released in July found that 39% of TV viewing by Latinos was in Spanish and 61% was in English. Spanish-dominant Hispanics spent 68% of their viewing time watching Spanish, while bilingual Hispanics spent 70% on English programming. Primarily English-speaking Hispanics watched Spanish-language TV only 5% of the time. Increasingly, programmers are looking to satisfy both impulses.

“It isn’t a matter of English versus Spanish,” argues Mauro Panzera, senior director of multicultural marketing at Comcast, which has carriage deals with more than 50 Spanish-language networks as well as Sí TV and LATV. “They are complementary. You may have a multigenerational household where the parents are watching Univision and the children are watching Sí TV or LATV or MTV.”

The move by some mainstream programmers to target Hispanic audiences, as well as the willingness of young Latinos to embrace mainstream programming, has prompted some debate over the future of Spanish-language programming. In an article published earlier this year, Richard Alba, a professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York, found that just 6.1% of first-generation Hispanic children ages 6-15 spoke only English. By the third generation, however, most had lost their Spanish skills, with 71.6% of all Hispanic children speaking only English.

Does that mean Hispanics will lose their Spanish as they acculturate? Alba thinks so, but others differ. “The current wave of immigrants differs in a number of fundamental ways from the immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries,” Waterston argues. “The world is a much smaller place. It is much easier to stay connected through long-distance phone calls, the Internet and air travel.”

Immigration isn’t slowing. About 40% of all Hispanics in the U.S. are foreign-born, with 52% of these immigrants arriving between 1990 and 2002. And, the majority of the immigrants are young.

“No one can predict what will happen 50 years from now,” Woolfson admits. “But the demographics indicate that Spanish will be extremely important for the next decade, and it most likely will remain so for at least 20 years.”