Latino TV station tops US ratings
Spanish-language TV channel Univision topples the major networks as viewing habits reflect a cultural shift among the young
Christopher Goodwin The Observer 18 January 2009
For those brought up on a diet of Friends, Cheers and ER, it may come as something of a shock: the viewing habits of America are not only changing but the top-rated programmes in the nation are now being broadcast in Spanish.
America's most popular shows for viewers aged 18 to 34 - the advertisers' most coveted demographic - are now programmes such as Fuego en la Sangre (Fire in the Blood) and Cuidado Con el Angel (Don't Mess with the Angel), which are broadcast by Univision, the biggest Spanish-language television network in the US.
Univision has just released a set of remarkable figures showing that on crucial Wednesday and Friday nights their ratings outscore those of the big four English-language networks, CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox.
Hispanics now make up around 15% of the US population, some 47 million people, but are expected to number around 133 million - 30% of the population - by 2050.
Most of the top-rated shows on Spanish-language television are telenovelas - soap operas - such as Sin Tetas No Hay Paraíso (Without Breasts There Is No Paradise) and Las Tontas No Van al Cielo (Dumb Girls Don't Go to Heaven), imported from Mexico and Colombia.
Sin Tetas ... is adapted from a best-selling Colombian novel about a young prostitute who becomes involved with drug gangs and believes she needs to have breast enhancement surgery to become more attractive. Telenovelas are far more than mere entertainment in Spanish-language cultures; many deal with social and cultural issues of real concern to Hispanics, particularly those in the United States, such as class and body image.
"It's a dream story of upward mobility that resonates strongly with the social reality of inequality in Latin America," says Thomas Tufte, author of Living With the Rubbish Queen: Telenovelas, Culture and Modernity in Brazil. "It becomes the fuel of hope and social aspiration."
Perhaps the most successful imported telenovela is Yo Soy Betty la Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly One), a Colombian telenovela that was a massive hit throughout Latin America and on Spanish-language television in the US. The English-language remake rights were bought by Mexican actress Salma Hayek, and the show has become the very successful Ugly Betty, starring America Ferrara.
Indicative of the increasing cross-fertilisation between Hispanic and English-language culture in today's multicultural America, NBC will now be remaking Sin Tetas ... in both Spanish and English for the US market.
"We recognise that the telenovela phenomenon is here to stay and we want to take advantage of one that's a proven hit," says Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. "It will be fascinating to see how American viewers embrace this kind of unique storytelling."
But it's not just telenovelas that are popular in America. Reality shows such as Bailando por un Sueño (Dancing for a Dream), a Mexican-produced version of Strictly Come Dancing, are also huge hits. Other top-rated Spanish-language shows include Mexican imports Sábado Gigante (Big Saturday), Don Francisco Presenta, Cristina and Aqui y Ahora (Here and Now).
In many American cities, Spanish-language TV news shows, such as that of KMEX in Los Angeles, outscore their English-language rivals, not just in ratings but in scope and depth.
"There's no comparison in the coverage," says Josh Kun, a communications professor at the University of Southern California. "For people here, there are two places to look for better news: BBC News and Spanish-language news."
The increasing importance of Spanish-language television in the US is evident from a huge lawsuit now in the courts between Univision and Televisa, the Mexican television company that produces many of Univision's shows.
Televisa wants to end an agreement that gives Univision exclusive rights to its telenovelas and other shows. Univision, which was bought by a private group for $12.3bn in 2006, is vigorously fighting the suit. Univision owns and operates 64 TV stations and 70 radio stations in the US. Its revenues top $2bn a year.
"The programming that Televisa provides gives Univision a dominant position in the marketplace," says José Cancela, author of The Power of Business en Español. "If they were to lose that or it unravels, it has a huge implication for their financial circumstances."
Spanish-language media dominance extends far beyond television. Radio hosts, such as the fiery Renán Almendárez Coello, known as el Cucuy - the Boogeyman - with his show El Cucuy de la Mañana on KLAX-FM in Los Angeles, also rule the American airwaves. For six years, until he resigned at the end of last year to focus on his new TV show, el Cucuy had the top-rated show in Los Angeles and 10 other American cities, beating much better-known English language figures such as Howard Stern. Appealing to a largely working-class audience with a show that the New Yorker described as "a seven-hour torrent of puns, pranks, and play-acting, with the loopy mood and cacophonous, somewhat forced hilarity of a drunken office party", figures such as el Cucuy have been very influential in rallying Latinos to press for immigration reform and to support candidates such as Barack Obama. They'll be waiting to see if their support will be reciprocated by the new administration.
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