Not very long ago, there were few choices for U.S. Hispanic television audiences, especially if they spoke only Spanish. Today, with four full-fledged Latin networks airing 24 hours a day, Latinos can tune in to a wide variety of shows. The quality, however, is not much better in than it was years ago.
It would be easy to criticize the quality of Spanish-language television, which sometimes feels as though it had frozen in time—20 years ago. But, in recent years, there has been a detectable increase in the quality—or at least the diversity—of its content.
Such improvement has come in the wake of alliances that the Latin networks have formed with international TV suppliers for more-varied products.
Unfortunately, there are other long-term partnerships—such as the one between Televisa and Univision, in which the largest Mexican network supplies the largest U.S. Latin network with more than half its programming. When programmers try to fill so many hours with products from the same outlet, there is a good chance they'll end up with a lineup padded with mediocre shows.
Many programs on Spanish-language TV should have been retired long ago. Some are too archaic, like Univision's 40 year-old variety program Sábado Gigante
(Giant Saturday). Others seem pointless, like Telemundo's gossip-show Cotorreando.
Some of the shows seem over-the-top by the standards of the major English-language networks. But their gimmicks are familiar to English-speaking viewers, too: scantily clad women in provocative situations; slapstick comedies with heavy sexual innuendo, like Univision's Los Metiches; talk shows where debauchery reigns, like Telemundo's Jerry Springer-like Laura
and Univision's long-running and equally outrageous Cristina.
Not to mention the epitome of mediocrity: telenovelas, particularly the melodramatic, rags-to-riches pulp produced by Televisa. To a younger, better-educated generation, novelas
represent everything trite about Latin pop culture.
Each time a network has tried to change this format, though, it has encountered resistance. A few years ago, U.S. Latinos rejected Telemundo's then "revolutionary" concept of updating American TV staples from the '70s and '80s and airing them with English subtitles during prime time.
What has made this formula so successful is that it offers traditionally escapist fare that tends to focus on the trials and triumphs of the underprivileged masses. And it is well-known that the TV masses have never been—to put it delicately—very discriminating.
Latinos are a difficult group to define. It's an audience composed of people from diverse backgrounds.
Giant Univision is reaches almost the entire U.S. Latin population. It has remained on top by offering U.S. Mexicans, the largest group in that community, a lineup that speaks directly to them and in their accent.
NBC-owned Telemundo is reaching out to a broader, if far smaller, group. But it has imported and produced more contemporary and diverse programming. Still, every one of the top 20 Hispanic programs from September through mid March comes from Univision.
Telemundo is targeting the younger generation—advertisers' most coveted demographic—by dipping a toe into the reality-TV pool. The network is adding to its lineup such shows as its own version of Fear Factor
and Temptation Island, which premiered with great success this month.
With such formula-breaking shows, Telemundo is hoping to appeal to the younger generation of Latinos. But they are the ones most likely to tune in to English-language TV.
The Latin networks, it seems, are focusing more on attracting and keeping the "traditional" audience—new arrivals and older generations, mostly Mexican immigrants—while leaving their cable sister channels (Univision's Galavision and Telemundo's Mun2) to seek the right mix of programming to attract younger, American-born Latinos. Eventually, as the Hispanic population grows, no doubt the lines of distinction will blur.