Latin Themes, English Beat

In the early hours of Feb. 25, SíTV founder Jeff Valdez was holding his breath, anxiously watching seconds tick off an on-screen clock. His cable network, five years in the making, was finally about to launch. Valdez and his small staff were gathered on the SíTV soundstage, nervously nibbling their breakfast and waiting for the new English-language, Latino-themed channel to sign on at noon ET.

"I was praying the signal would come up," Valdez recalls. Luckily, it did.

Now Valdez and his team are fine-tuning their channel before kicking off a broad consumer marketing campaign in April. He says, "We want to make sure everything is tight."

SíTV plays to young, acculturated U.S. Hispanics. It makes original shows in its own studio, like The Rub, a sex and relationship talk show, and music show The Drop. SíTV will also produce most of its own non-scripted shows. Scripted series, mostly acquired, will boast Hispanic appeal, like New York Undercover
and comedy Malcolm & Eddy. For now, the channel rotates an eight-hour wheel of programming through the day and plans to expand soon.

With the U.S. Hispanic population surging past 40 million, this hybrid model, designed to attract English-speaking and bilingual Hispanics, will likely grow. Just last month, a new entrant, the Voy network, unveiled plans to launch in July as an English-language, Hispanic-themed lifestyle network. NBC-owned Mun2 already programs a mix of English- and Spanish-language fare. And syndicator AIM Tell-A-Vision buys time on local stations to air its Urban Latino TV
show, targeting what President Robert Rose calls "the fastest-growing untapped market in the U.S." So far, of cable networks targeting this crossover audience, SíTV is the category leader. It has deals for digital basic carriage on big MSOs—notably Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner—and a spot on EchoStar's Dish Network's most widely distributed tier.

With deals for broad digital carriage, SíTV is in an enviable position. Of course, those are corporate-level deals, and individual systems get to decide whether to carry a network. Many wannabe networks, both Hispanic and general-market, find operators' digital capacity is largely filled up. As a result, many can find a home only on a more limited tier, such as a Hispanic or sports tier.

It took Valdez, a producer whose credits include Nickelodeon's Hispanic-themed hit The Brothers Garcia, years to finesse cable operators. After EchoStar opted to invest in SíTV, things took off. On Dish, SíTV boasts plum channel positioning between MTV and ESPN. In addition, SíTV's early distribution success has attracted a handful of big-name advertisers, including Wal-Mart, Sears, General Motors, and the U.S. Army.

Voy hopes for similar results. Founder Andrew Thau, a veteran of Fox Cable, believes U.S. Hispanics can't relate to today's TV. On Univision and Telemundo, he says, there's imported Spanish-language fare. And general-market TV offers few Latino characters or themes. SíTV and Voy hope to fill that underserved market.

"There is no home for the leading edge of the U.S. Hispanic marketplace, the acculturated Hispanic," Thau says. He sees an added general-market appeal—"People love Hispanic culture and entertainment"—and cites the popularity of Ricky Martin and J.Lo.

Voy plans non-scripted fare, like talk, travel and culinary programs, and entertainment news, though it has no distribution deal. Like SíTV, Voy is hoping for digital basic carriage, rather than a Hispanic tier. And NBC Cable is trying to get Mun2 off some Hispanic tiers and more broadly distributed.

Industry consultant Cathy Rasenberger, who leads Voy's distribution effort, says MSO and DBS operators are catching on. "There is a great deal of complexity to the market," she says. "You can't satisfy it with only Spanish-language programming."

Valdez says early feedback is encouraging. "A lot of people said they were expecting a cheesy, startup-cable look," he says. But SíTV has invested in its production quality, with smart-looking sets and HD cameras. "We're putting our money on the screen, and it shows."