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English Isn't a Second Language on TV

Growing Spanish media won't take over the market.

January 20, 2002|FRANK del OLMO

I've seen the TeleFutura--and it may not be as ominous as some expect.

TeleFutura is the seventh and newest Spanish-language TV network in this country. It was launched Monday by Los Angeles-based Univision Communications Inc., the $6.8-billion company that is--for now--the 800-pound gorilla of Spanish-language broadcasting in the U.S.

I write "for now" because these days nothing is certain in the mass-media business except change. And the launch of this latest Spanish-language network suggests that some Univision executives see change coming.

Univision's growth has been a big story for a decade. Purchased for a mere $550 million in 1992 by A. Jerrold Perenchio, Univision now has 26 television stations, 32 affiliates, a cable network and an Internet portal.

Its scrappiest competitor, Florida-based Telemundo, is no slouch either. It owns 10 TV stations in major cities such as Los Angeles, has affiliates in most other markets and a cable network. It was recently purchased by NBC for $1.98 billion.

Two other Spanish-language networks, Visalia-based Azteca America and Hispanic Television Network of Fort Worth, are not as large. But their growth would seem preordained, given the Spanish-language broadcasting boom.

But without denigrating the success of Univision or Telemundo, allow me to suggest that there may be less to this Spanish-language media boom than meets the eye.

The phenomenal growth of these TV networks, not to mention dozens of new Spanish-language radio stations from Georgia to Washington state, has been fed by a historic wave of immigration from Latin America that began in the late 1960s and may have peaked in the '90s. Even the biggest waves ebb. And the end of our economic boom, combined with political and economic reforms in Mexico and peace in Central America, seems to have turned the Latin American immigrant tide. At least declining numbers of illegal-immigrant arrests would indicate that it has slowed.

This means the Latino audience Univision and its rivals gear their programming to is going to change in subtle but important ways. Households that were only Spanish-speaking will include more Latinos born in the U.S., who speak English and Spanish. Like other young Americans, they'll prefer rap videos on MTV or American football on ESPN to the recycled telenovelas (soap operas) that are the staple of Univision and Telemundo.

In Univision's promotion of TeleFutura, one hears acknowledgments that their market is changing. "There is this huge audience that is not watching Univision, and a large percentage are Spanish speakers," said one top Univision executive recently.

That reality should reassure the groups that have looked upon the proliferation of Spanish-language media in this country with concern, and even alarm.

Fearful Anglos who see Univision and its competitors as the harbingers of some cataclysmic cultural shift can take confidence in the vigor of English as our common language and in the continued attraction of U.S. culture.

Contrary to the warnings of some demagogues, Latino immigrants are not unassimilable.

But even as Latinos assimilate, Spanish-language media won't fade away. Their business won't grow as fast, but foreign-language TV and radio stations and newspapers will still be viable--especially in international cities such as Los Angeles. But they will have to compete harder for an audience that shifts easily between languages.

That should offer some hope to the many Latino activists who criticize Univision and its competitors for not doing more to promote TV shows produced by, and for, U.S.-born Latinos. They may find broadcast outlets willing--or perhaps forced--to move beyond telenovelas, tacky variety shows and old movies to focus on the bilingual, bicultural reality of a unique American audience.


Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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