After decades of being shunted to the sidelines, Spanish-language media outlets have now joined the big leagues of TV research.
Ratings giant Nielsen Media Research today plans to pull the plug on a separate service that it created 15 years ago to measure the size of Latino TV audiences. Latinos are now so important to the overall TV ratings picture that it would be misleading to relegate them to a separate system.
So Nielsen's sole source for national ratings will come from its influential "people meter" survey, which is produced daily from the TV program choices made by viewers in about 12,000 homes equipped with Nielsen set-top boxes. That panel includes about 1,400 Latino families.
"We've had to work real hard to get to where we are today," said Hector Orci, chairman of La Agencia de Orci & Asociados, a Los Angeles advertising firm. "Trying to get Nielsen to change its methodology is like moving a mountain -- a very big mountain. This move says that Latinos make up an important market that continues to grow."
Said Danielle Gonzales, managing director of Chicago-based Tapestry, a top agency that specializes in Latino media: "This is a turning point -- the television industry has acknowledged the strength of the Hispanic population."
The move to one system comes as major media companies and advertisers are eager to reach Latino consumers. There are more than 44 million Latinos living in the U.S., making up about 15% of the total population. Some studies have estimated the collective buying power of Latinos in the U.S. at more than $800 billion a year.
"We are approaching a critical mass of consciousness by the industry and marketers who have discovered the enormous economic buying power of Hispanics," said Don Browne, president of Telemundo, the Spanish-language network owned by NBC Universal. "They see who is moving through their stores and who is buying their products and services -- and it's increasingly Hispanics."
The history of the separate Hispanic Television Index that Nielsen is now scrapping shows just how much Spanish-language TV has evolved.
When it debuted in 1992, the system, which measured viewing by Latinos of both English- and Spanish-language programs, was considered groundbreaking for seeking to figure out what Latinos were watching.
Nielsen had created the special index after Spanish-language-network executives complained that ratings were artificially low because of a shortage of Spanish speakers in Nielsen's sample audience. Univision and Telemundo subsequently agreed to pay $40 million to help finance the creation of a separate system.
In 1992, Univision and Telemundo were the primary Spanish-language broadcast networks. Together they attracted an average 2.5 million viewers in prime time. That year, Spanish-language TV advertising revenues reached $220 million.
Last year, ad spending on Spanish-language TV topped $3 billion, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. There now are four major Spanish-language broadcasters, including Univision-owned TeleFutura and Azteca America, which is affiliated with Mexico's second-largest media firm, TV Azteca.
Big media companies also have embraced Spanish-language TV. Five years ago, General Electric Co.'s NBC spent $2.7 billion to buy Telemundo and its small cable channel, mun2. Others added cable channels that target Latinos, including such recognizable brands as Fox Sports en Espanol, Discovery en Espanol, CNN en Espanol and MTV Tr3s.
Doug Darfield, Nielsen's senior vice president for Hispanic services, said there were several reasons for having a separate survey. Nielsen's national people meter sample audience in the early 1990s was about a third of the size that it is today. And, at that time, Latinos made up a smaller slice of the U.S. population.
There were about 500 Latino homes in Nielsen's people meter audience, which was too small a number to provide accurate ratings for shows that ran on the Spanish-language networks, Darfield said.
"You needed a more robust sample size," he said. Nielsen's Hispanic Index was made up of 1,000 homes in which the head of the household was Latino.
Nielsen also encountered obstacles when it tried recruiting Latino families to join. Some people, including recent immigrants, were wary of letting the Nielsen representatives and their electronic equipment into their homes.
Ceril Shagrin, who designed and managed the system during her 27-year career at Nielsen, said the Hispanic survey immediately gave Spanish-language networks more credibility with advertisers. And over time, she said, Nielsen documented the growth of the Latino audience, which encouraged companies and advertisers to enter the market.
But, ultimately, the system became problematic.