Catching the Hispanic Wave - PBS to Launch Spanish-Only Station

By Louis E. Nevaer, New America Media, Feb 22, 2007

NEW YORK--The Public Broadcasting Service, alarmed by the demographics eroding its core membership and recognizing the rapid ascendance of Spanish use in the United States, sees its future in Spanish.

PBS is set to launch a Spanish-language television station called "V-Me," -- a play on words that translates to "C-Me" or "See Me" in English -- later this year.

"Hispanic parents are eager to communicate with their younger children in Spanish and are looking for more educational Spanish-language programming as a way of maintaining the language and culture," V-Me announces about its programming. "V-Me's content is a mix of the best of U.S. public television, world-class acquisitions, and original productions."

This runs contrary to the belief that Latin American immigrants assimilate, becoming English-speakers as other immigrants have done in generations past.

"A recent study released by Princeton University and the University of California, Irvine shows that Latino children lose their grasp of the Spanish language just a few generations after their family has immigrated to the United States," La OpiniĆ³n, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in California, informed its readers. "English becomes the dominant language for the children of immigrants."

This conventional wisdom is behind Time Warner's decision to carry SI TV, an English-language cable channel aimed at the Hispanic/Latino market in the United States. "Our programming reflects the changing face of America," Michael Schwimmer, SI TV CEO, said. "The decision to launch SI TV represents Time Warner Cable's commitment to their diverse subscriber base."

And yet, SI TV has a very small slice of a very large pie. The Los Angeles-based cable channel reaches fewer than 15 million households and, according to Kagan Research LLC, is expected to generate just over $7 million in advertising revenue in 2007. Compare that with a fully distributed channel, such as Univision, which reaches more than 90 million households and generates almost $850 million in advertising revenue. SI TV's viewers are also a concern; the channel attracts more teenagers than the most highly coveted demographic group of all, the 18- to 34-year-olds.

PBS, however, has a vision that transcends the market fragmentation of cable television: V-Me aspires to be a mainstream, public television station that reaches millions of households, for free.

In other words, PBS acknowledges that the rapid ascendance of the Spanish language in the United States is a dominant cultural phenomenon, with sweeping socioeconomic consequences.

"The demographic reality is that it is like an earthquake jolted the border with Latin America, and suddenly Latin America is 200 miles north of the Rio Grande," said Raquel Romero, of Mesoamerica Foundation, a human rights organization in Merida, Mexico. "Mexico is now deep inside the United States, and American companies are realizing that there is no border in certain consumer markets."

There are two Hispanic markets in the United States: one is comprised of U.S.-born Hispanics, or "Latinos," who aspire to enter the American English-speaking mainstream, and another of Latin American immigrants, or "Latins," most of whom wish to live in the United States without entering the world of English speakers.

Disparate fertility rates between Hispanics and non-Hispanics mean that the domestic population growth is almost exclusively a result of Hispanic births (African-Americans are reproducing at "replacement" rates, while non-Hispanic whites are declining in the United States - as they are throughout most of northern Europe). Sustained immigration from Latin America means that Latin Americans far eclipse all other immigrant groups in the United States.

PBS is only the latest media corporation to come to terms with this phenomenon. Reader's Digest and National Geographic, for instance, have recently seen the steady rise in the circulation of their Spanish-language editions. Reader's Digest has published a Spanish-language edition of its magazine called "Selecciones." Last year, when it celebrated its 35th anniversary, "Selecciones" had a circulation of 375,000. National Geographic's Spanish-language edition for Latin America, "National Geographic en Espanol," is also enjoying strong growth in the United States.

In broadcast media, the Spanish-language phenomenon is playing itself out with daunting speed. MTV launched MTV Tres, a new channel targeting bicultural and bilingual U.S. Hispanics between the ages of 12 and 34. "Our goal is to reach critical Hispanic mass, and the only way to effectively do that is to have broadcast as part of the strategy as well," said Lucia Ballas-Traynor, general manager of MTV Espanol, who took on the same title at MTV Tres.

MTV Tres began broadcasting in September 2006 and in just five months reached 15 million households.

What holds true for television applies to radio: the socioeconomic consequences of the emergence of the United States as a Spanish consumer economy can be quite startling. "On the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005, thousands in Orlando got a shock when they turned on their car radios for a drive home," T. D. Allman writes in the March 2007 issue of National Geographic. "The Supremes had been banished; Kenny Rogers had been given the boot. Without warning or explanation, FM 100.3, Orlando's famous 'golden oldies' station (known as the Big 100s), had vanished. Rumba 100.3, new home of central Florida's hottest Latin sounds, had taken its place. To oldies fans, it was as though Hispanics with boom boxes had somehow gotten inside their car."

The corporate executives at Clear Channel, which owned the Big 100s, made the decision that 100.3 would go from English to Spanish overnight.

Language divides Hispanics in the United States in spectacular ways: MTV Tres is created to court Spanish-speaking Latin Americans, while SI TV targets English-speaking Latinos.

In a fragmented consumer (and linguistic) market, these realities are complementary, not competitive. PBS, struggling to nurture a core membership as this century unfolds, understands that its future depends on courting the Spanish-speaking U.S.-based viewer.

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