Breaking the Language Barrier

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

With the nation’s Hispanic population booming, TV stations around the country are grappling for ways to reach Spanish-speaking viewers without alienating the rest of their audience.
Changing demographics first prompted television news organizations to hire on-air Hispanic talent so the newscasts better reflected the audience. But the weightier issue for stations today goes far beyond mere appearances to giving Hispanic viewers news that is relevant and presented in their own language.
After a decade of surging population growth, Hispanics have become the largest minority group in the United States, according to Census Bureau data released earlier this year. The numbers also showed that nationally, almost 11 percent of Hispanics speak Spanish at home.
Separately, according to the most recent data from Nielsen Media Research, 56 percent of Spanish-language-dominant households watch Spanish-language programming.
Armed with such statistics, stations in communities of all sizes are experimenting with ways to attract Spanish-speaking viewers, hoping they’ll change the dial from national Spanish-language networks such as Univision or NBC’s Telemundo. Station managers said their fledgling efforts underscore the importance of the growing Hispanic population and that their commitment to that audience is real.
Some stations started early. WB affiliate KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, for example, has been broadcasting Spanish-language simulcasts of its local newscasts since the mid-1980s. But in recent months, stations ranging from WB station WPIX-TV in New York to CBS affiliate WRAL-TV in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and NBC affiliate WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich., have begun carrying real-time Spanish translations of prime-time newscasts through the second audio program, or SAP, channel.
In Grand Rapids, station executives were looking for a niche in the marketplace and decided to focus on the growing Hispanic community; the 2000 census showed the 14-county population served by the station includes 100,000 Hispanics.
Live Translation
In January, WOOD hired a man and a woman from a language-translation provider to the health care community. During the 6 p.m. news Monday through Friday, the duo sit in an audio booth and provide a live translation of the local news. The $50,000 annual cost is covered by a two-year sponsorship agreement with a mortgage company and a grocery chain that are credited on-air for the translation.
Station management said the overall response has been positive. “[Hispanics] are not getting their local community news on Univision or Telemundo,” said station General Manager Diane Kniowski. “We’ve had a huge outpouring of support.”
Stations that are attempting to capture Hispanic viewers-as opposed to other ethnic groups-said they are seizing upon the Hispanic market because of its growing population base and buying power.
In a large metropolitan area where there are multiple ethnicities, it would be more difficult. Trying to broadcast the local news digitally in multiple foreign languages could divert the station’s attention from its mainstream mission, executives said.
Mark Higgins, VP and general manager of WB affiliate KASW-TV and station manager of independent KTVK-TV, Belo Corp.’s duopoly in Phoenix, doesn’t think translating a mainstream newscast is the answer. “They want the real thing,” Mr. Higgins said. “Hispanics don’t want to be provided a secondary option and stations saying we’re just going to give it to you this way.”
In Phoenix, 25 percent of the market already is Hispanic-dominant or bilingual, and forecasters predict 50 percent of households will speak Spanish at home by 2008. Three years ago, Belo and Cox Communications teamed up to launch Mas! Arizona, a 24-hour Spanish-language cable channel that broadcasts from the studios of KTVK.
Industry Lags
Latino-related stories made up just 3.98 hours of 728 hours of news broadcast by the networks in 2001, according to a study released late last year by NAHJ. The association maintains that as stations hire more Hispanics in their newsrooms, the quality and quantity of Hispanic stories will improve.
“By and large, I don’t think the industry is doing so well,” said Arthur Rascon, an anchor at KTRK-TV, the ABC affiliate in Houston, and VP of broadcasting at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “The demographics of the country are changing so rapidly, and the industry isn’t keeping up with it.”
Mr. Rascon will address the subject of Spanish-speaking TV audiences during a panel discussion at this week’s RTNDA@NAB convention.
Several stations that are attempting to serve Spanish-speaking viewers are partnering with local Latino organizations for insight as well as cross-promotion efforts. Nevertheless, efforts by independent stations are handicapped by the dominance of Hispanic behemoths such as Univision, Telemundo and Azteca, said Bob Papper, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University and director of the RTNDA/Ball State University annual survey.
“If you’re an English-language station, can you play to the Hispanic market simply by covering the Hispanic market?” he said. “Yes, but you’re not dealing to the primarily Hispanic market. You’re dealing to Hispanics who were born here and use primarily English. Over time, that may well be a winning proposition, but `over time’ could mean many generations.”