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Spanish-language channels embrace English subtitles

Captioning for telenovelas and other programming may draw in younger viewers who are interested, but aren't fluent in Spanish.

October 03, 2010|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times

The dramatic music crescendos to a halt. The brooding ex-convict stands before his former lawyer (and current object of affection) and she says, with brute passion, the three words the mun2 TV audience has been waiting to hear: "Porque me importas!"

Or in the case of others, the words they've been waiting to read: "[Because] I care for you."

Spanish-language television stations across Southern California still serve as cultural and linguistic lifelines for immigrants, but in a bow to generational changes within the Latino community in the United States, stations are increasingly turning to English subtitles to attract and retain English-speaking audiences.

For growing numbers of second- and third-generation Latinos, English isn't a second language — it's their dominant language, and television stations are starting to accommodate the shift. And like immigrant groups before them, Latinos are grappling with the leveling force of American culture and what it means to their identity, particularly when it comes to language.

"I can't even carry a complete conversation [in Spanish] with my grandma," said Esmeralda Hernandez, 18, who relies on English subtitles when watching Spanish programming on bilingual stations. "I would tune in to "Isa TKM" because it was fun. But I wanted to know everything that was being said. I was reading the translation instead of trying to figure it out on my own. I'm too lazy."

Given demographic trends and the gradual erosion of Spanish-speaking skills, the trend toward English subtitles is expected to expand. So far, the subtitled programs aren't drawing huge numbers compared to solely English- or Spanish-language stations, but there is still an audience there. For example, earlier this year "Decisiones Extremas" (Extreme Decisions) re-aired in March on mun2 and hit a high of 172,000 viewers among adults 18-34 — the largest program delivery in the history of the network.

"The bicultural audience is the hardest one to get," said Flavio Morales, vice president of programming at mun2, a bilingual network. "There are tons of choices on broadcast and cable — in both English and Spanish — that they could be watching, like "The Biggest Loser" or the NBA playoffs."

The young, bilingual audience often does more than watch — it also discusses the programs on the networks' websites, usually in English. In the comments section for the telenovela "Sin Senos No Hay Paraíso" (Without Breasts There Is No Paradise), which re-aired on mun2 with subtitles in 2009, commenter Katie wrote: "I don't even speak Spanish 100% n novelas aint really my cup of tea...but this my favorite show right now n thats sayin somethin. Lol the subtitles do kinda help too tho." [sic, entire post]

Second- and third-generation Latinos currently make up 60% of the total U.S. Latin population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And a report from the American Political Science Assn. says that 71% of third-generation Latinos older than 18 said English was their dominant language; 27% consider themselves bilingual.

"The second, third generations are losing something by relying on the subtitles," said Thomas Ihde, associate professor of Irish in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the City University of New York. "Subtitles encourage passive knowledge. That's part of the tradition in America: losing our ethnic languages in opting for the majority one."

Network executives disagree, arguing that subtitles don't threaten cultural identity or erode Spanish skills. "One's inability to speak Spanish doesn't make them any less Latino," Morales said. "So why exclude them from experience?"

The use of subtitles has steadily risen over the past three years on bilingual MTV Tr3s as the network has acquired more Spanish programming, including 'Isa TKM" and "Casado con Hijos," and developed long-form productions such as "Quiero Mis Quinces" and "Pimpeando." The station found that though its core audience is bilingual, the majority of teen viewers had a preference for English, according to the network.

The subtitle strategy is one way to stay in sync with the bilingual marketplace, executives explain. "I think it's working," said Jose Tillan, general manager of MTV Tr3s. "The whole market is shifting daily. Where we are today is not going to be where we are 10 years from now. From the research we've done, the negative connotations have been minimal."

But bilingual stations weren't the first to use subtitles as a way to reach later-generation Latinos. Facing stiff competition from dominant Spanish-language network Univision and a growing number of other Spanish-language channels, Telemundo became the only Spanish-language network in 2003 to offer English captions — something which the viewer can opt not to use — to many of its prime time offerings, including "La Cenicienta" and "Amor Descarado."

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