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ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox... Univision?

The Spanish-language network's viewer gains have it boasting of being the competition for the Big Four. The conditions appear favorable for it to keep right on gaining ground.

By DAVID ADAMS
Published June 5, 2005


Before there were only three. Then there were "the Big Four."

Now, the Spanish-language Univision network is staking its claim to membership in the elite club of national TV broadcast networks.

"The Big Four IS NOW The Big Five. COMPRENDE?" it boasted May 27 in a full, back-page ad in the New York Times.

In the latest sign of the changing shape of TV audiences in the United States, Univision says on 22 nights during the past season (Sept. 20, 2004, to May 25) it "grabbed the No. 1 spot" ahead of its English-speaking rivals ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Locally Univision is WVEA-Ch. 62.

Univision beat one of the Big Four on three out of four nights during prime time in the first quarter of this year, the network adds, citing figures collated by Nielsen Media Research, the TV ratings firm.

Dramatic though the statistics might appear, they come as no surprise to media analysts. "We've seen this developing for a long time," said veteran Hispanic pollster Sergio Bendixen, president of Bendixen Associates in Miami. "For the first time the national media is catching on that it is a five-way battle for audiences."

To be sure, Univision has some advantages over the other networks, analysts point out. First, the absence of strong competition from its Spanish-language broadcasting rivals means Univision can claim almost exclusive rights to the rapidly growing Hispanic population, estimated at about 40-million, or 14 percent of the population.

"That means given the right split, on the right night, they can beat any of the traditional Big Four," Bendixen said.

Univision says it broadcast 96 of the 100 top-rated programs in Spanish last season. TV Azteca and Telemundo, the other main Spanish-language networks, have failed to challenge Univision's grip on a market that continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Univision Network dominates the Hispanic market with 65 percent of viewers, according to Nielsen. Univision's closest rival, Telemundo, captures 17 percent of the Spanish language viewership.

Despite recent debate over the accuracy of technology and the methodology used by Nielsen to collate ratings, no one seems to be questioning these latest figures. If anything, Univision says, the data fail to fully count its viewership.

Congress set up a task force in April 2004 to look at the accuracy of Nielsen's ratings after criticism that African-American viewers were not being fully counted.

"These figures appear to be accurate enough for Univision to go out on a limb," said Arturo Villar, publisher of Miami-based Hispanic Market Weekly.

Behind the bold New York Times statement lies Univision's next battle - winning over advertisers. Despite the network's success, it counts barely half the top national advertisers as its clients. Advertisers also pay lower fees for Spanish-language networks, known in the trade as the "Hispanic discount."

Univision hopes the latest figures will change that. "Now we are there and it's not a fluke, it's not a fad," said David Woolfson, senior vice president for Network Research at Univision. "It's a trend. Now we can say it with confidence."

Univision's success can be attributed to a combination of the younger demographics of the Hispanic population and smart programing and scheduling, analysts say.

An estimated 65 percent of the Hispanic population is 35 or younger, according to the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies. Nearly 11-million Hispanics are undocumented immigrants, according to research conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C. "It's the younger, physically able-bodied people who make it across the border," Bendixen said. "That's the base of their (Univision's) audience."

Univision's content benefits greatly from a 25-year contract for the exclusive use of programs produced by Televisa, its Mexican partner. Televisa, with Venezuela-based Venevision, owns nearly 25 percent of Univision Communications Inc., the Los Angeles corporation that owns Univision. The corporation also runs two other TV networks, Telefutura and cable outlet Galavision, and radio, Internet and music divisions.

A bitter, ongoing dispute with Televisa over the appointment of a new president and chief operating officer is unlikely to upset Univision's successful programing arrangement, analysts say. The current contract between the companies does not expire until 2017.

Televisa is famous for producing popular soaps, or telenovelas, the mainstay of Spanish-language broadcasting. Since Televisa's productions have been tried and tested in the Mexican market, Univision enjoys a head start over its rivals.

Two of last season's soaps, Amor Real and Rubi, were the most-watched telenovelas of all time, Univision says.

The two-hour grand finale of Rubi on March 7 was watched by nearly 8-million viewers. Amor Real's last episode on March 17 captured nearly 7-million. The station's biggest ratings success came April 7 with a special show on the 10th anniversary of the shooting death of Mexican-American singer Selena, which was viewed by 13-million.

Another special, the music awards show Premio Lo Nuestro, attracted 10-million viewers. By comparison, the final episodes on Fox of American Idol, the top-watched English-language show in May, enjoyed audiences of between 17-million and 19-million. NBC's two episodes of Law and Order, which came in 7th and 8th place, had audiences of between 10-million and 12-million.

While Univision's format may be similar to the U.S. networks - with a strong news and current affairs division, as well as popular entertainment and chat shows - the cultural content is very different.

Until recently skeptics used to argue that Spanish-language media was destined only for short-term success as immigrants integrate more and learn to speak English. But analysts predict Hispanic broadcasting will only expand. "The cultures are so different that it is reasonable to expect that Spanish language TV will continue to grow in importance," Bendixen said.

Cultural differences range from taste in comedy, TV soaps and sports, to news and current affairs. Univision's highly respected 6:30 p.m. nightly network news is frequently led by immigration items, ahead of English-language staples such as the war on terror. Univision also has built a strong stable of entertainment and talk shows, including Cristina with host Cristina Saralegui and Sabado Gigante with host "Don Francisco."

- David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 4, 2005, 09:19:03]


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