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Speaking To the Youngest Latino Viewers

English- versus Spanish-language is a hot topic when deciphering the television viewing preferences of U.S.-born Hispanic young adults and teenagers. But much less attention is paid to what Latino children under 12 are watching

Not surprisingly, Hispanic children between the ages of 2 and 11 are watching bilingual fare such as Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go!, as well as Scholastic Media’s Maya & Miguel. But more mature content like telenovelas are also very popular with the young Latino audience.

According to the Census Bureau, 20% of all children in the U.S. under 5 years old are Hispanic. Yet there are only two Spanish-language cable networks for children — Sorpresa! and Discovery Kids en Español — both with limited carriage.

“Need. That’s the reason we started,” said Chris Firestone, executive vice president of operations for Sorpresa! parent Firestone Communications, when asked why the company launched a Spanish-language network for children. “There needs to be options, and there needs to be multiple choice destinations for our audience.”


As the overall Hispanic population shifts decisively from first-generation immigrants to U.S.-born second and third generations, there is a corresponding shift in emphasis when it comes to language. Typically, immigrant parents stress to their children the importance of learning English. Many second- and third-generation Hispanics, according to consistent market research findings, say they want their children to learn Spanish.

“We see this as being an important thing,” Horowitz & Associates vice president of marketing and business development Adriana Waterston said. “We hear [Hispanic] parents say this is important regardless of how well they speak Spanish. [English-dominant Hispanics] find it as important as the Spanish-dominant households that the kids have Spanish-language television. Why? Because they can’t teach the kids Spanish.”

“Kids are a very interesting opportunity in the U.S. Hispanic market,” said Discovery Networks U.S. Hispanic Group senior vice president and general manager Luis Silberwasser. “We know it is a very attractive segment to parents.”

Discovery Kids en Español, which launched last year, is available on cable operators Cox Communications Inc. and RCN Corp., as well as telcos AT&T Inc., Qwest Communications International Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.

Silberwasser said he is confident the strategy of providing high-quality children’s programming in Spanish will eventually pay off. Discovery has the advantage of being able to pick up shows Stateside that the network is already showing in Latin America.

“Cable operators shouldn’t ignore the demand for quality programming for kids. That is the kind of programming that all Hispanics are interested in,” said Waterston.

Sorpresa! is available in about 1 million cable households, mostly on Hispanic tiers. “As we get more successful, we hope to break out of the tiers and go down to the digital basic level,” said Firestone.

Juniper Partners Acquisition Corp. last week agreed to purchase Firestone.

Firestone is not counting just on the network’s cable subscriber base. Sorpresa! programming is now available on Internet Protocol TV provider Akimbo Systems, Google Video and Sprint TV en Vivo, as well as on Comcast Corp.’s Hispanic video-on-demand package. Even with all platforms combined, the network has a modest reach.

Still, some advertisers and media buying agencies are taking notice. “Spanish-language kids programming is not going to deliver huge number of eyeballs,” said Dana Bonkowski, media director of Tapestry, the largest multicultural media buying agency in the U.S. “The vast majority of media consumption by Hispanic kids is actually English-language media. However, the ones we do connect with [in Spanish-language media] we do feel strongly will experience it in a [positive] way.” Tapestry places ads for clients such as restaurant chain Chuck E. Cheese and Kellogg Co. on Sorpresa!

Beyond purchases that are traditionally influenced by children, such as cereal and toys, research firm Yankelovich Inc.’s “Youth Monitor” study found Hispanic children have a significant impact on large family purchases.

“Forty percent of Hispanic parents with children aged 6 to 11 say their kids have a very or somewhat important influence on large car purchases,” said John Page, youth insights manager at Yankelovich. “Forty-five percent of Hispanic kids 6 to 11 said they had influence over their family’s purchase of television sets.”

As part of its “Multicultural Marketing Study,” Yankelovich also examined the viewing habits of Hispanic families. Sonya Suarez-Hammond, director of marketing insights at Yankelovich, said, “Kids are watching telenovelas with parents, and the parents are watching cartoons with the kids.”


Mexicanal is a general news and entertainment channel that targets Mexican immigrants and their families. The network, available exclusively on DirecTV’s Hispanic tier, deliberately includes a number of kids’ shows.

Maria Urquiaga, Mexicanal senior vice president of production and programming, believes Univision and Telemundo have largely ceded the children’s market. “I want to groom my audience from age zero,” said Urquiaga. “I think it is very important that we maintain the Spanish language. At Mexicanal with our children’s programming we are trying to make that into a reality so children will not lose their parents’ language. We are a way of keeping that from the beginning to adulthood.”

Hispanic children won’t be able to learn Spanish just from watching television. But there are indications that what they do watch on television can shape their attitudes towards learning Spanish in the classroom.

Scholastic Media researched children’s reactions to language usage before and after watching Maya & Miguel. “We did see a shift in attitudes where [before watching the show] many of the kids would find it negative when someone didn’t speak English, and after they watched the show they thought it was cool,” Scholastic Media president Deborah Forte said.

Carlos Cortés, professor emeritus of history at the University of California-Riverside, is a member of the advisory board for Maya & Miguel, as well as a consultant to the producers of Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go!. Cortés believes that all three shows have prompted “a rise in interest in the maintenance of Spanish from both parents and kids.” He singled out Nick’s Dora for particular praise, saying, “What I think Dora has really done is [make] being bilingual a fashionable thing.”

Executives at Nickelodeon and Scholastic stress that their shows are not designed exclusively for Hispanics. “It isn’t just for Hispanic kids — it is for all kids,” said Forte.

Nickelodeon executives repeatedly stress the importance of being inclusive and reflecting the multicultural diversity of their audience. And proof of Dora and Diego’s widespread appeal is evidenced by the fact they are routinely the top two rated programs among all preschool viewers.

But it is also very clear that Hispanic children have embraced these characters and that 20% of their total audience is Latino. Their appeal among Latino children is not happenstance: Dora and Diego are made with the input of Latino academic consultants, Latino musicians and Latino writers.

Less obvious is the appeal telenovelas have among younger Hispanic audiences. Despite the decidedly child-unfriendly subject matter of most telenovelas, Nielsen Media Research ratings clearly indicate they are regularly watched by Hispanic children ages 2 to 11. In fact, on many weeknights Univision is the first- or second-highest ranking network in primetime for all children 2 to 11, not just Hispanic kids. Between Dec. 26, 2005, and August 6, Univision was first on 42 nights and second on 96 nights.


Hispanic media consultant David Flynn Huerta sifted through Nielsen data to compile the top 10 shows among Hispanic women ages 18 to 34 and the top ten shows among Hispanic children 2 to 11, in order to identify Spanish-language programs that Hispanic mothers watch with their children. He found that three of the top five shows were primetime novelas on Univision.

“Hispanic families have a lot of preschool kids [and] are larger in terms of the number of people per household,” said Discovery’s Silberwasser.

There are also fewer television sets per household among Hispanics, according to Nielsen Media Research. This means Hispanic primetime viewing often takes places together as a family.

“The content of the novela is fairly variable in terms of the raciness quotient,” said Professor Robert Huesca who teaches a course about telenovelas at Trinity University in Texas. “Some would probably get a G-rating, and there are others that are definitely a PG-13. I would be concerned more about the violence than the sexual content. People being shot and beaten; that is very common in novelas.”

Univision declined comment for this article. But in an interview several months ago, Univision senior vice president of research Ceril Shagrin was asked if telenovelas were appropriate viewing for young children. At the time, Shagrin responded, “I’d rather have them watching it together as a family and discussing it than having a child watching an X-rated film on a computer alone in their room and drawing their own conclusions.”

The presence of large numbers of Hispanic children in telenovela audiences has not resulted in a large amount of advertising targeting kids in primetime. Tapestry’s Bonkowski admits they’ve considered it but cites cost as the main obstacle. It is much cheaper to advertise on Sorpresa! than on a primetime telenovela with the cable ads running for less than 1% the cost of the novelas.


That Latino children are watching telenovelas comes as no surprise to the husband-and-wife animation team of Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua. They readily admit to having grown up watching novelas. Gutierrez goes so far as to describe El Tigre, their animated show scheduled to begin airing on Nickelodeon early next year, as a “cartoon-novela.”

“Our show is really over the top, and that is definitely from the novelas” said Gutierrez.

Aimed at children 8 to 11, El Tigre’s cast of characters will include divorced parents and an evil grandfather. “It’s a little risky,” is how Equihua said some studios reacted to the show. The success of Dora and Diego led them to pitch Nickelodeon, which has ordered 13 episodes. “I think El Tigre is going to be particularly terrific,” Nickelodeon Television executive vice president and general manager Tom Ascheim said.

Ascheim does not admit to feeling pressure to come up with a Latino-themed hit for Hispanic children who outgrow Dora and Diego. He describes the process as “organic” and sees the arrival of El Tigre’s creators as a welcome outgrowth of Dora and Diego’s success.

“[Dora] was a huge eye-opener. The youngest kids were not turning away from Latino themes and [learning] Spanish,” said Gutierrez. “When they are old enough and get to El Tigre, they will already be aware of the culture. There won’t even be a transition period.”

The fantastic success of Dora, Diego and Maya & Miguel has dramatically reshaped Hispanic children’s programming over the past five years. “An unbelievable cultural phenomenon” is how Ascheim described Dora.

The same can be said of other bilingual kids’ shows with Latino characters. Professor Cortés said before these programs began “there was always kind of an embarrassment” that young Hispanic children associated with speaking Spanish.

Not any longer.