When Susana Rivera-Mills phoned relatives back in El Salvador from California, one of the frequent topics of conversation that straddled the bicultural divide was the telenovela airing on TV in both places. “It was a way of connecting, of shortening that distance,” says Rivera-Mills, a professor of Spanish linguistics at Oregon State University. “It’s one of those traditions that are passed on.”
Spanish-language television has flourished well beyond its beginnings half a century ago as an ethnic niche medium to become one of the biggest media markets in the United States, driven by the growing Latino population as well as its content.
Univisión, which launched in 1962 as Spanish International Network, now ranks as the fifth largest U.S. broadcast network, and its primetime ratings routinely best those of the four bigger mainstream networks. A host of smaller players provide local and national broadcast programming, plus pay TV channels offering sports, news and movies, all in Spanish 24/7. Most have launched since 2000.
Behind that juggernaut growth undoubtedly lies the sheer heft of the U.S. Hispanic population – around 54 million or about 17 percent of the U.S. population, fuelled by four decades of immigration waves from Latin America, chiefly Mexico.
The fact that Spanish is spoken across an entire region contributes to Hispanic TV’s clout compared to other ethnic media, which tend to remain small niche outlets serving immigrants from one country, says Mark Hugo López, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center. The growth of Asian immigration has eclipsed that of Latin Americans since 2010, but Asian media is unlikely to ever have the presence of Hispanic media since each Asian country has its own language, thus creating a fragmented media market.
But a deeper part of Hispanic TV’s story relates to the roles that the language of Spanish and television plays in Latino households.
Unlike other immigrant groups, Latin American immigrants tend to retain their home language through generations, driving use of Spanish media.
Research by the Pew Hispanic Trends Project shows that from 1980 to 2010, the percentage of Hispanic households that spoke Spanish remained consistently at about 75 percent, while the number of Italian, German and Polish speakers dropped by 55 percent, 33 percent and 26 percent, respectively, over the same period although the number of people claiming that ancestry rose.
“We’re still at the beginning of this Hispanic immigration wave, which really started in the 70s and 80s, so we don’t know how it’s going to be 100 years out, as with the Italians and Germans, but there’s a real emphasis on maintaining Spanish and connecting to their home country,” says López.
Younger Latinos may be English-dominant, but due to the Hispanic culture’s tradition of close family ties, they often grow up around extended family who tune into programming like “Sábado Gigante” and novelas. Hispanic TV becomes part of the comfort of “home” for younger generations, as well as reinforces their learning of Spanish.
“They see their moms crying to the soap operas. There’s an emotional attachment,” says Felipe Korzenny, founder and director of the Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication at Florida State University.
Content is a key sustaining element of Hispanic TV. Spanish-language TV offers current events from around Latin America and U.S. topics of interest to Hispanics, such as immigration reform, as well as sports popular among Latinos, like soccer and boxing. Entertainment shows feature Hispanic celebrities and performers. “They offer a lot of programming you can’t get elsewhere,” says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
Hispanic television also has a wealth of readily available programming to tap. Mexico, with a long history of cinematic production, is a major source of movies and TV shows. Programs are also imported from Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and other countries. This programming offers “cultural compatibility” for the U.S. Latinos, particularly the foreign born, Korzenny says.
That compatibility isn’t always offered on mainstream TV even when Hispanics are featured. ABC megahit “Modern Family,” which stars Colombia’s Sofía Vergara as a fiery, sexy bombshell with an accent, is the top rated English-language show for Hispanics, but its Hispanic ratings pale in comparison to Univisión’s soap operas – 1.1 million Latinos watch “Modern Family,” 3.6 million watch the telenovela, according to Advertising Age’s 11th Annual Hispanic Facts Pack issued in 2014.
“Sofía Vergara is funny to non-Hispanics because she’s a stereotype,” says Linda González, chair of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies. “She’s not so funny for Hispanics.”
Latin American programming, with its melodramatic rags-to-riches novela plots, isn’t always relevant to Hispanics’ lives in the United States, either. Telemundo, the No. 2 Spanish-language broadcaster owned by NBCUniversal, produces novelas and other shows that incorporate themes important to U.S. Latinos, including college education, diabetes prevention, and Census participation. That has created an additional avenue of Hispanic-specific programming not available on mainstream TV.
“We see time and again that it is a not some sort of life-stage choice to give up Spanish-language TV and move to English-language TV for good,” said Mike Rosen, NBCUniversal’s executive vice president of advertising sales for news and Hispanic groups, in a statement. “It is quite the opposite, a choice made every time the viewer picks up the remote, seeking the best, most relevant and engaging storytelling, event or sports programming, without language as a limitation. And we also see time and again that when we put great content on the screen, Hispanics across all language fluencies and generations will tune in, from Spanish only to bilingual. The key is to program and produce content that is relevant to today’s U.S. Hispanic, and they will come.”
Part of that includes adapting mainstream TV programs popular with Hispanics for Spanish-language, such as NBC’s “The Voice” with “La Voz Kids” on Telemundo, and making edgier, character-driven telenovelas and shows that continue for several seasons, Rosen notes.
Although several outlets focusing on providing Hispanic-themed TV in English have launched in recent years, Spanish-language TV shows no signs of slowing. In 2009, Liberman Broadcasting launched Estrella TV, a national network. In 2012, Fox ramped up Noticias Mundo Fox, a news channel.
“The Spanish-speaking population is projected to continue to grow at least through 2020, probably to 2030, and maybe further,” López says. “Spanish-language media will continue to be on a growth trajectory for the foreseeable future.”