Thursday, February 26, 2009

Comcast tunes in to Hispanics, adds more channels

Tuned in to Hispanics
Comcast adds networks to appeal to a growing viewer demographic
By Johnny Diaz Globe Staff / February 26, 2009

Comcast Corp. customers in Boston and Brookline may be seeing more breaking TV news reports, dramas, and sports coverage en espaƱol from such places as Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Venezuela. The cable provider this month introduced an expanded Hispanic programming package that imports 50 popular Spanish networks from Central and South America.

Current Comcast subscribers receive 20 local access and broadcast Spanish-language channels from Univision, TeleFutura, Telemundo, Azteca America, and Cuencavision networks. Traditionally, viewers who wanted channels from Latin America needed to subscribe to satellite television or special-order a specific channel from their cable operator.

Comcast's new package adds $14.95 a month to a subscriber's bill of $10 for basic cable, or $60 for expanded cable. Boston and Chicago are the first markets where Comcast is offering the Spanish-language package, because the company has the broadband capacity in those cities to add channels. Comcast is the largest cable operator in the United States, with 24 million subscribers or 30 percent of the national market.

"The industry has always had a couple of channels for lots of different groups," said Steve Effros, an adviser to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in Washington, D.C. "But the Hispanic population is so large and so important that it's getting the attention it deserves. I'm sure a lot of people are going to follow Comcast's lead. . . . Adding 50 channels is quite a bite. You can't do it everywhere at once."

Cable operator RCN Corp. offers a Spanish-language package in Boston that includes 30 international channels for $19.95 a month. RCN plans to increase the lineup to 50 channels this year. "Other competitors have channels in their Hispanic package that we offer in our basic cable package," said Aleisha Bozin, senior programming manager at RCN.

Comcast officials say they are trying to fill a void on Spanish-language television. In Boston, many Spanish-speaking Dominicans, Colombians, and Venezuelans prefer to watch the same nightly news and sports games that are broadcast in their native countries. At restaurants such as El Cafetal in Allston customers watch news shows from Colombia as they dine.

"Dominicans here like to get their news from Santo Domingo through the Internet or television," said Frank Valenzuela, a Lynn resident who logs on to his computer to follow news from his native Dominican Republic.

Comcast's initiative mirrors a growing trend among news and media outlets that continue to plumb the Hispanic market to attract new customers. Latinos make up the largest minority in the country, and advertisers and media executives view them as an undertapped audience. In Boston, the Latino population surged by 17 percent, according to the most recent Census data. New England is home to 900,000 Hispanics, including 437,000 in the Bay State, the 2000 Census shows.

"The Latino members of the community are very important to us from a growth perspective, but they also reflect our employee base," said Mary McLaughlin, area vice president of Comcast. "We want to have the programming reflect the multicultural nature of our consumer base."

The Spanish-language package also includes 125 additional Hispanic on Demand programs such as Bloomberg TV News in Spanish or the recent Latin Pride Awards in Boston.

For now, the package is available only in Boston and Brookline, where Comcast recently expanded to a nearly all-digital network. That allows for more high-definition choices and faster Internet speed, representatives said.

"Digital channels take less space up on a system, so as there is more bandwidth available, more channels can be available to customers," said Joy Sims, spokeswoman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

After Boston and Brookline, McLaughlin plans to broaden the increased Spanish network lineup to the rest of Massachusetts by the end of the year. Comcast has 1.6 million customers in the state through its phone, cable, and high-speed Internet outlets.

Catering to the diversity of the Hispanic community - which includes people from many countries and races - has been a challenge for networks such as Univision and Telemundo, which provide news and programming to Latinos but do it with a singular pan-Hispanic approach, using Spanish as the common thread.

Other networks and broadcast companies have stepped up to tailor to specific Latinos in the United States with niche programming. There's SiTV, a cable channel that highlights Latin entertainment and culture. V-me, pronounced "veh-meh" or Spanish for "see me," debuted in 2007 and partners with PBS to air educational and cultural programming for children and adults. MTV expanded its portfolio of youth programming with MTVTr3s, a music channel that caters to adults 18 to 34 who speak English, Spanish, or both.

In recent years, Comcast has reached out to Boston's Hispanic community to become a more visible player. The cable provider cosponsored the annual Latino Family Festival at Fenway Park. Last fall, Comcast launched an English on Demand service, which uses instructional videos to teach basic English as a second language to viewers. The program was designed with Operation Bootstrap, a nonprofit group in Lynn, which has a large Latino community.

"Comcast, by launching this new programming tier, gives us a sense of how important the Latino consumer is," said Alberto Vasallo III, publisher of El Mundo, Boston's oldest Spanish-language weekly newspaper. "You have a very diverse Latino community in Boston. You have some Puerto Ricans who are going to watch Channel 7 news, but you have others who have arrived who have a vested interest in El Salvador, Venezuela, or Colombia. It's bringing the world even smaller together, closer together."

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

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