Local TV, the Latino Way

Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains may not seem like fertile ground for a homegrown Hispanic TV show. But in tiny Hazleton, Pa., a local TV production company has teamed up with the town’s cable operator to create a weekly 20-minute newscast for Latino viewers, anchored by a local Latino newspaper publisher.

“The demographics of our area are changing,” says Tim Trently, division manager of local operator Service Electric Cable TV Inc., which has 20,000 basic cable subscribers.

Trently notes that about 5,000 Hispanics have migrated to Hazelton from neighboring New York and New Jersey, but few have signed up for cable — at least partly because satellite providers offer more attractive Spanish-language programming packages. “We want to make sure there’s programming out there for everybody,” says Trently. “We’re doing everything we can to promote it.”

Service Electric is far from the only operator that’s heeding the drumbeat as Latin rhythms of life grow more prominent both in major urban markets and along some unexpected byways.

Local Latino programming may not be growing at the same explosive rate as national Hispanic channels — which jumped from about 60 last spring to 75 today, according to Multichannel News research published in this supplement (see page 18A).

Yet in a slow, steady trickle, cable operators, broadcasters and satellite TV providers have started introducing an increasing variety of local Spanish-language channels and shows. Local Hispanic channels have popped up in New York; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Austin, Texas; Milwaukee; and Tampa, Fla., among other places, over the last couple of years.

Prominent among them is Time Warner Cable’s NY1 Noticias, a Spanish-language companion to its popular NY1 News news channel. The New York City service launched in June 2003 and is primed for new changes. “The plan obviously is to expand the programming,” says Steve Paulus, senior vice president and general manager of the entire NY1 operation for Time Warner.

With New York facing what’s likely to be a hotly contested mayoral election next year, the network’s plans call for adding a political talk show, sports programs and more live-event coverage next year.

Right now, NY1 Noticias is a shoestring operation with a handful of reporters covering news of particular interest to the Latino community, which makes up 27% of the city’s population. The channel offers viewers a constantly updated 30-minute news wheel, weather forecasts, transit and traffic reports, and occasional coverage of live, breaking news events.

In Tampa, Bay News 9 en Español, another Spanish-language all-news channel, is also in prime expansion mode. Started in March 2002 as a complement to the Bay News 9 channel, the network upgraded from a 15-minute news wheel to a 30-minute news wheel last spring and added regular segments on medicine and business. It also boosted its political coverage during this year’s heated campaign season that saw Florida elect one of the nation’s first Hispanic senators, Cuban-born Mel Martinez.

“It’s been an exciting year,” says Elliot Wiser, vice president and general manager of the entire Bay News 9 operation for MSO Bright House Networks. Wiser says Bay News 9 en Español ran several interviews with Martinez during the election and just earned its first Emmy Award nomination for a series about Cuba.

News isn’t the only genre that’s inspired local Latino programming. Cable operators, broadcasters and satellite TV providers are also developing and distributing local weather, music, general entertainment, public affairs, and sports channels and shows.

In Los Angeles, privately owned broadcaster LATV now produces and airs 20 hours of original Hispanic music, culture and other entertainment programming each week, up from just four hours a year ago. Geared toward bilingual Latino youth and young adults, the three-year-old network reaches 4.4 million homes in southern California through its broadcast station, KJLA-TV, and carriage on area cable systems. While grown locally in Los Angeles, LATV now has national aspirations. It has inked carriage deals with DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network, and has begun selling itself to cable systems across the country.

In Phoenix, Mas! Arizona is serving up a blend of news, sports, weather, music videos and community programming to cable subscribers. A joint venture of Belo Corp.’s broadcast station KTVK-TV and Cox Communications Inc., Mas! launched as a local Spanish news channel four years ago and then switched to a broader news, entertainment and community format last March.

And in New York and Kansas City, the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network is presenting local arts, cultural, children’s, public affairs and educational programming to cable customers. HITN, carried by Time Warner in those two markets, is also available nationally through DirecTV and Dish Network.

“We cover events in the Latino community like C-SPAN,” says Jose Luis Rodriguez, president and CEO of HITN. “We provide programming that will help Latinos understand better their life in this country.”

On the local sports front, a number of operators and regional cable networks are now producing game broadcasts in Spanish for their Hispanic viewers.

In New York, Madison Square Garden Network serves up Spanish play-by-play for the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks, the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers and other sports action via a secondary audio programming channel. And in Atlanta, Comcast Corp. has a pact with the local NBC affiliate to air Atlanta Falcons National Football League preseason games in Spanish on Comcast Sports Southeast.

“Overall, [local Hispanic programmers are] trying to replicate the genres that the general market has,” says Burke Berendes, a partner in Condista, a Miami-based firm that distributes Spanish networks to cable and satellite operators. “It’s starting to get a little more specialized.”