Republican candidate Mitt Romney is interviewed by Univision's… (Felipe Cuevas )
Latino voters could play a deciding role in this year's presidential election, raising the stakes for Spanish-language television networks eager to solidify their role as the voice of a vital community.
For years, leading Spanish-language broadcasters Univision Communications Inc.and Telemundo, a unit of media giant NBCUniversal, have pushed for a higher profile and larger slice of the advertising pie. These broadcasters have approached past political election seasons with high expectations — only to be disappointed.
This year, however, could be their breakthrough moment.
"We are seeing more interest than we ever have in the past," Univision Networks President Cesar Conde said in an interview. "The candidates want to proactively reach out and speak to this community. It makes sense: The path to the White House is through the Hispanic vote."
With more than 50 million Latinos in the U.S., the TV outlets have become more relevant to candidates. An estimated 12 million Latinos are expected to vote in November, representing a 20% increase from four years ago. Polls show a majority prefer President Obama.
In the past year, Univision and Telemundo have bolstered their coverage of candidates and issues important to Latinos, including immigration and the economy. The broadcasters' goal is to demonstrate to advertisers and viewers that they are go-to sources of news and entertainment for an increasingly important segment of the U.S. population.
Already this year, Univision and Telemundo have had several interviews with Obama, and each had a sit-down with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In late January, Romney faced tough questions from Univision News anchor Jorge Ramos about his views on immigration and Mexico — the country of Romney's father's birth. First Lady Michelle Obama went on Univision two weeks ago and defended her husband's inability to push immigration reform through Congress — a sore point among many Latinos.
Not only have Univision and Telemundo scored more face time with the candidates, network executives rejoiced when the spigot of political ad dollars opened early this spring. Obama's organization began purchasing time on Spanish-language networks in mid-April, and Romney's campaign began accelerating its buys in July, media executives said.
"The political spending started so much earlier than before — in mid April — and it hasn't let up," said Enrique J. Perez, senior vice president of sales for the Telemundo Station Group. "It has definitely been more robust than I have seen in my entire career in Spanish-language media."
Four years ago, the Spanish-language broadcasters collectively took in about $50 million in political money, according to industry estimates. That represented only a sliver of the $2 billion spent. This year, even more money is up for grabs, with political analysts predicting that campaigns could spend as much as $3 billion on TV.
"It's hard to say what the final tally to Spanish-language television will be, but I can say that it will be a significant increase," Perez said.
Demographic trends, including the younger median age of the Latino population, have made the group increasingly attractive to advertisers and candidates. Cuban Americans from South Florida lean Republican, but Mexican Americans in the Southwest, including California, have become a reliable base of support for Democrats. Four years ago, Obama commanded more than 65% of the Latino vote.
Some Republicans have made inroads too. In 2004, PresidentGeorge W. Bush was reelected, in part, by capturing 40% of the Latino vote.
Two years ago, U.S. SenateMajority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) retained his seat in a hard-fought race after his opponent slammed him with accusations that he was lenient on immigration. Latinos turned out in force, with 90% supporting Reid, said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions.
"The political campaigns are getting more savvy that they need to reach this audience," said Luis Alvarado, a Republican political consultant based in Los Angeles. He added that Spanish-language networks have been improving the breadth and quality of their newscasts.
"In the past there had been some pandering, but these networks have changed," Alvarado said. "There is greater competition now for viewership and, thus, these networks are starting to provide more comprehensive and balanced reporting."
The competition for eyeballs and ad dollars has intensified as the space becomes more crowded.
Both Univision and Telemundo have Sunday morning public affairs programs similar to NBC's "Meet the Press." Both networks have added experienced journalists to their staffs. They compete with CNN en Español, Azecta America network and others.