La Cadena Deportiva, the nation's first Spanish-language sports cable network, is attempting to change the way Latinos watch television.
During the last decade, cable television has become a staple in the lives of more than 50% of Southern Californians. But Southern California Latinos, as a group, have not embraced cable with the same enthusiasm, according to cable company executives--primarily because there was little programming in Spanish, other than the Spanish-language broadcast stations that they could already watch without the benefit of a cable hookup. Only about 15%-18% of those Southern Californians who subscribe to cable are Latino, according to research compiled from Nielsen ratings--less than half their representation in the overall population.
Executives at La Cadena Deportiva (the Sports Network), a regional service launched by the English-language Prime Ticket sports cable network in November, is trying to change that statistic.
So are a few other basic cable channels that have recently cropped up, such as MTV Latino and CNBC's all-Spanish news channel. There is also "HBO en Espanol" among pay channels, which offers 70% of its films dubbed in Spanish.
But because those services are national in scope, some cable operators believe La Cadena Deportiva is better suited to Southern California Latinos and those in the Southwest United States in general because it is a regional service and has a Mexican American orientation in recognition of that group's heavier representation among Latinos in this part of the country.
"What the cable industry has done with regard to Spanish-dominated households is avoid them," said Paul Laredo, controller of Buenavision Telecommunications Inc., an East Los Angeles cable company that recently added the sports network to its 54-channel service. "Since 1982, when we launched our cable service, we've been searching for Spanish-language programming, and there's been very little. La Cadena is particularly targeted to Southern California. It's done with predominantly Mexican-type Spanish, and it really seems to fit the needs of Southern California Latinos. That's why we're promoting the heck out of it."
The network offers 15 hours a day of sporting events, seven days a week. Since soccer and boxing are the "sports of passion" for many Latinos, said Richard P. Ramirez, vice president and general manager of La Cadena Deportiva, the network carries two soccer matches a day, from Mexico, Argentina and other Latin American countries, and boxing matches from all over Latin America as well as the United States.
About 40% of the service features American sports with Spanish-language announcers, including Los Angeles Lakers basketball games and hockey featuring the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim's Mighty Ducks. There is also football, baseball, tennis, volleyball and golf.
Channel executives face significant hurdles. They must first persuade cable companies to carry the service, which is difficult because most systems are already full. Then they have to persuade Latinos that cable is worth signing up for.
Only 14 cable systems have signed on so far, reaching about 130,000 Latinos in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. "There is a severe shortage of channel capacity, and that is part of the reason why this service is not on everywhere right now," said Roger Werner, Prime Ticket president. He believes the picture will brighten as more systems rebuild to expand the number of channels they can offer.
And Ramirez thinks La Cadena Deportiva can be used by cable operators as a marketing tool to lure the Latino subscribers they've had difficulty reaching.
"We should be positioned as an acquisition tool," he said. "To use an analogy, we are the Marines that storm the beach."
Art Reynolds, vice president of marketing for Cox Cable in San Diego, said he's already experiencing the impact with the sports network, MTV Latino and GEMS, a service originating from Venezuela described as the "Hispanic Lifetime Channel" and targeted primarily to women.
"We're hearing from customers that they like it a lot," Reynolds said of La Cadena Deportiva. "Virtually everything (available in Spanish) up to now has been fairly similar. This is distinctive, and we think it will be very successful."
One of the draws of the service has been hockey, which before this had never been translated into Spanish.
"Hockey's a brand-new sport for Latinos," said Rodolfo Hernandez, one of La Cadena Deportiva's hockey announcers. "They didn't know anything about hockey and now they love it."
In fact, the announcers have had to coin new expressions for the game--approved during lengthy staff meetings--because some hockey terms don't have Spanish translation. Penalty box, for example, is translated to caja de castigos (box of punishment) or congeladora (freezer).
Why bother to cover sports that don't traditionally have big followings among Latinos?
"We do the (American) sports that are expensive to produce because the research said that Latinos don't want to be viewed as second class," Ramirez said. "There's cognizance of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson throughout the globe, and to hear original Spanish telecasts with announcers who know the game and the teams and follow the players is a great experience. People want to learn about the games. They really want to become bicultural, and part of that bicultural experience, particularly for the male, has to involve sports."