Time was when officials at the local network-owned TV stations were only competing against themselves in the evening news ratings. But these days they have Spanish-language KMEX-TV Channel 34 nipping at their heels.
The audience for KMEX's 6 p.m. weeknight newscast has increased 18% over the past year. It still falls short of those for KABC-TV Channel 7, KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KCBS-TV Channel 2, but the gap is narrowing, and "Noticias 34" was No. 1 last November among all viewers 18 to 49, the demographic group most prized by TV advertisers.
"KMEX used to try to compare itself to the No. 2 Spanish station (KVEA-TV Channel 52), when in reality the competition is the general market," said general manager Augustine Martinez. "We're finding out we're more than competitive in the market now, and that's the right direction."
Martinez and other station executives attribute the newscast's ratings growth to a renewed commitment to local news, an infusion of money from new owners and the increasing popularity of its lead-in programs, the talk show "Cristina" and the newsmagazine "Primer Impacto."
KMEX is one of 11 stations in the Spanish-language Univision network, which in 1992 was sold by Hallmark to Hollywood investor A. Jerrold Perenchio, Mexican media baron Emilio Azcarraga and a Venezuelan-based communications company. They authorized KMEX to upgrade its news operation, adding a weekend newscast last September and purchasing a helicopter and two mobile satellite trucks to expand the coverage base.
"With Mr. Perenchio and his acquisition of the Univision station group, there has very much been a positive move for Spanish-language media," Martinez said. "Our credibility has become paramount. We were very aware of the sensationalism that existed previously here at KMEX. But I think the perception now is that (Channel) 34 is where you turn for breaking news."
Senior KMEX newsman Eduardo Quezada--who anchors the 6 p.m. broadcast with Andrea Kutyas--said he has seen substantial changes since joining the station in 1975.
"I think what's changed most is that we have the resources, and that gives us a better chance of covering more neighborhoods, more news that happens all around, not just in Southern California," Quezada said. "Before, we had to depend on other stations, but now, when news happens in Latin America, we send somebody from our local station. Whenever it happens we send a reporter or two, like to Chiapas or to the site of earthquakes. We can present it from the point of view of the way our audience sees it, and that way they can understand it better."
KMEX's newscasts and the station as a whole--like its counterpart KVEA--had been criticized within the Latino community in recent years for not adequately serving the area's predominantly Mexican American audience, presumably because the stations were largely managed by Cuban Americans. KMEX has refocused its efforts in that regard and in December hired Luis Patino, a reporter at English-language KCAL-TV Channel 9 for five years, to help spruce up its news profile.
Patino, hired as a producer but now KMEX's acting news director, brought with him a fresher, more utilitarian perspective.
"We tailor newscasts specifically to the audience," he said. "Because we have a much more targeted audience, we can talk to them specifically on issues they're concerned with. We concentrate on 'news you can use.' Our viewers are hungry for information they can use to go about their daily lives. If we're going to tell them about crime, we're also going to tell them about how to deal with it."
Some of the issues KMEX news has been particularly concerned with have to do with immigration (including intensive coverage of Proposition 187 before and after the November election), local crime and international developments that have an impact on local Latinos.
"For instance, if we're talking about an undocumented worker with a family, we'll take a more human angle (than might be taken on English-language stations)," Quezada said. "An English story will take the point of view of immigration agents, for example, and we'll probably take the angle of 'Who are these people, where did they come from, why did they come?' "
KMEX's new news viewers appear to be coming from three sources, according to Maureen Schultz, the station's research director: defectors from rival KVEA, new Latino immigrants and former viewers of English-language news on KCBS, KNBC and KABC--or, as Schultz puts it, "those who are Hispanic but didn't really like the product that we used to offer and had turned to English stations, but then lost interest in what they were seeing there."
Insiders at English-language stations point to the overall growth of the Latino population as a large factor in KMEX's success. "There are less Spanish-language options than English-language options," said a research director at one network-owned station who asked not to be identified. "So having less competition in that area has obviously helped them."