The decision by a Federal Communications Commission administrative law judge to not renew the licenses of 13 Spanish-language television stations may be following the letter of the law concerning foreign ownership of broadcast properties, but it also raises the question of the role and control of this very important medium in the United States.
U.S. law limits foreign participation in radio and television station ownership to 20%. In his ruling last week Judge John H. Conlin said that the stations, all members of the Spanish International Communications Corp. chain, should lose their licenses because they are under the control and influence of Mexican media baron Emilio Azcarraga and his family.
While debate on the law may be better left to legal experts, the FCC ruling and its potential effect on Spanish-language television cannot be overlooked. Neither can the sentiments of the Latino community. Latinos are one of the two fastest-growing minorities in the nation; Asians are the other. Including Puerto Rico, upwards of 20 million people of Spanish descent live in this country. Los Angeles' KMEX, one of the stations that may lose its license because of the ruling, reaches 87% of Latino households in Southern California.
That's about 3 million people. Yet the judge in his ruling did not consider the implications that a shutdown or a reorganization might have on so many viewers, many of whom are immigrants trying to assimilate into a new culture while retaining their identity with the past.
More, however, is at stake than the possible shutdown or reorganization of KMEX or the other 12 TV stations. The SIN television network, which reaches about 82% of the nation's Latino community, is also implicated in the ruling. SIN is the program network for many of the nation's Spanish-language stations, including the Spanish International chain, operating in much the same manner as ABC, NBC or CBS. The FCC has questioned the relationship between SIN and Spanish International Communications Corp. SIN is also controlled by the Azcarraga family.
One must recognize the remarkable contribution that SIN and its affiliates have made in bringing together the nation's Latino communities. It has helped foster a sense of unity among a people who have only recently begun to seek a common identity among their diverse national groups. SIN has made Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Central and South Americans more aware not only of their common language but also of their common culture. More important, it has helped them realize their shared problems and aspirations. This is the first step in the awakening of the Latino community to its power and potential.
A 1984 study of Latinos in the United States reported that 66% of those interviewed believe Spanish-language media to be important, up from 63% in 1981. The same survey also found that 73% of all Latinos interviewed made use of Spanish-language television in a given week, up 5% from 1981. Clearly Latinos value Spanish-language television, and just as clearly there is a need for such programming.
What is most disturbing about the FCC ruling is that it could mean the end of Spanish-language TV as we now know it. SIN and the Spanish International stations have not been without their critics, both inside and outside the Latino community. But there can be no argument that they have successfully brought to life Spanish-language TV and captured the imagination of millions of Latinos living in the United States. They have done so, for the most part, by offering a variety of quality programs that are more than Latino versions of Anglo shows. They have understood the Latino community in a way that only an insider--a Latino--could.
Perhaps the possible changes at the Spanish International stations will not mean a new Anglicized era in Spanish broadcasting. Perhaps the high quality of programming will continue. Perhaps an ownership group of American Latinos could step in to take control, solving both the legal and sociological questions surrounding the license issue.
But if this ruling turns out to be one leading to Anglo control of Spanish-language media in this country, it is a slap in the face of the Latino community. It will have been one more message to Latinos that the Anglo majority thinks it knows what they want, not what they need.