By Jennifer Pendleton
Special to TelevisionWeek
They tuned in last season in large numbers to Fox’s “American Idol” and the animated classic “The Simpsons.” They also responded to the call of UPN’s raucous “WWE SmackDown!” And soap operas? Yes, they love them too-in prime time and in Spanish.
This television audience with such eclectic taste is America’s Latino youth, ages 12 to 24, according to Nielsen Media Research. Look at the shows most popular with that group during the 2003-04 broadcast season and it’s clear Latino teens and young adults have much the same tastes as their counterparts in other ethnic backgrounds. But the data also hints at the complexity within this fast-growing segment.
To Phil Colon, managing director of Culture Speak, a New York-based advertising agency specializing in marketing to Hispanic youth, the Nielsen rankings speak volumes.
“The list points to the diversity of the U.S. Latin market-in terms of language, what attracts them and subject matter,” he said. The market includes English speakers and bilinguals who are highly acculturated into mainstream American life. It also includes those who identify with the hip-hop lifestyle referred to as “urban culture.” There are also those who speak Spanish exclusively.
So what makes a show work for an audience with such a broad cultural background? It’s a question many programmers are pondering, given population trends. At 38.8 million and counting, U.S. Hispanics as a group are growing at four times the rate of the overall population, and 70 percent are 26 years old or younger.
Analysts estimate that the younger generation accounts for around half of the $600 billion in Latino purchasing power. They are trendsetters in music and fashion. That makes them extremely desirable targets for advertising.
Television has found it hard to grab the attention of young Hispanic males, as it has with their general-market counterparts, Mr. Colon said. Most consume general media, and some targeted networks, such as Fox Sports en Espa%F1;ol and ESPN Deportes, have been able to draw them successfully.
But the big challenge, Mr. Colon said, is to discover the winning approach to consistently reach this underserved audience. “I know some advertisers are frustrated,” he said. “They say, `I get all these numbers about this population, and they’re huge, but how can I find them?”‘
Several relatively new and upcoming networks want to provide a solution.
At least one, mun2, the Telemundo-owned cable network targeting bilingual Hispanics 18 to 34, skews 70 percent to 80 percent male. Several others, including S%ED;TV, an English-language cable network, and the upcoming Voy Network, an English-language network targeting assimilated Latinos ages 18 to 49, are aiming at young Hispanic audiences of both genders.
Longtime power Univision Communications remains the Goliath to these Davids, since its three Spanish-language networks-Univision, TeleFutura and Galavision-collectively reach a 75 percent to 80 percent share of the audience.
Telenovelas, the prime-time soaps that are Univision’s programming staples, remain wildly popular in U.S. Hispanic homes. “Nina Amada Mia,” a contemporary melodrama featuring a widower with three grown daughters, was a ratings magnet last season for Hispanics, including youth.
So what’s the secret to making programs that appeal to Hispanic teens and young adults?
Fox chalks up its success to its ability to speak the universal language of teens and young adults. “I don’t think it’s an ethnic thing. It’s a youth thing,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning and research.
Another mainstream programming enterprise, World Wrestling Entertainment, which produces “SmackDown!” also traces its strong ratings among Hispanic youth to the show’s general popularity with young males. That said, executive producer Kevin Dunn also noted that “SmackDown!” has been gaining popularity with Hispanics.
Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio and Chavo Guerrero are Latino. (Mr. Guerrero is nicknamed “Latino Heat” and regularly breaks into tirades in Spanish and sometimes makes his way to the ring in a low-rider car.)
“We have a basic framework of our business that appeals to Latinos, which is action, confrontation and humor,” Mr. Dunn said.
The new focus on Hispanic champions wasn’t part of a WWE-directed programming strategy, he said. The show’s producers merely recognized the potential as these stars rose. “We follow our fans,” Mr. Dunn said.
Yolanda Foster, VP of programming and promotions for Telemundo Cable, said she believes programmers must do their homework to hit on winning programming concepts for this audience, which demands authenticity.
“You can’t program from the office anymore,” she said. “If you plan to do that, you’d better have darned good people on the street, understanding what this culture is all about.”
In her research, Ms. Foster found that young Latinos tend to consider themselves part of a wider urban culture in which music is a key form of expression. That’s why mun2 got behind nightly interactive programs built around alternative music, such as “The Roof” and “L.A. Streets.” “Youth just wants to be reflected,” she said.
Young viewers also don’t like to be stereotyped.
When mainstream television puts on Hispanic characters, they often traffic in cliches young Latinos can’t abide, according to Jeff Valdez, chairman of S%ED;TV. “One thing Hispanics are tired of is always seeing themselves depicted [on TV] as recent immigrants, gardeners and gang-bangers,” Mr. Valdez said. “They tune out,” he said.