Executives at WRAL-TV were quite pleased two years ago when they threw a switch to start a Spanish-language translation of their evening newscasts. While Raleigh, N.C. is not exactly one of the Latin hotspots—Hispanics comprise just 6% of the market— they're the fastest-growing segment of the local population.
So the CBS affiliate decided to take advantage of the secondary audio program, or SAP, on recent-vintage TV equipment. By tinkering with the settings of their TV or VCR, viewers could hear the WRAL-TV local newscasts in Spanish rather than English.
But, at the end this month, WRAL-TV will end its translation. The major reason: recession-induced cost cuts. But execs simply didn't think it was worth it.
"We felt like we were doing a wonderful community service, but we got very little feedback on it," said Director of Special Projects John Harris. "We're paying a lot of money for translators but not getting much from it."
That's a fairly common reaction. Lots of English-language networks and TV stations have tried to use SAP to draw Hispanic viewers, but their efforts have generated little enthusiasm among programmers and users.
Worse, the part of the spectrum used may be taken for video description (VDS), which offers narration of on-screen action for the blind.
Spanish SAP is a marketing decision. VDS for some prime time programming is mandated by the FCC.
ABC made a splash three years ago when its nightly World News Tonight
added a Spanish audio track that was picked up by 33 stations; ABC dropped it after a year, saying that it had no discernible effect on viewership in Hispanic households. CBS translates a single show, soap opera The Bold and The Beautiful. Fox is more expansive, offering prime time shows like The Simpsons
in Spanish (besides Bart's declaring "Ay caramba!").
In heavily Latino markets, it's not unusual for English-language broadcast stations to offer a Spanish simulcast of their newscasts. Tribune Co.'s WPIX-TV New York just started simulcasting newscasts in Spanish, with a twist: According to General Manager Betty Ellen Berlamino, the Spanish track is sponsored by Pontiac, so some translation costs are covered.
The major proponents of simulcasting are in cable. About 90% of HBO programming comes with a Spanish-audio feed. Turner Broadcasting Systems networks has crafted a marketing campaign around its Spanish SAP, including basketball on TNT, baseball games and Friends
reruns on TBS Superstation, and virtually everything on Cartoon Network and Boomerang. TBS pushes operators to tout those nets when selling subscriptions to Hispanic households.
It's easier for cable, which relies heavily on older movies and off-network series, product that studios have already spent the time and money to dub for syndication to Latin markets.
In a soon-to-be published study funded by Latino think tank the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, University of California-Irvine professor Lou DeSipio found that about 42% of Hispanics contacted knew Spanish-audio feeds were available but just 10% of those tuned in frequently.
"We were surprised by the relatively low levels of programming available and even more surprised by the low levels that they use it," DeSipio said.
It's sort of a pollo-y-huevos
problem: Hispanics won't use the SAP unless there's a lot of programming available; networks won't commit to offering programming in Spanish unless there's evidence Hispanics will use it. Nielsen doesn't track SAP usage, so stations and networks can only infer usage through upticks in viewership in Hispanic households.
The Tomas Rivera Institute study found that even bilingual Hispanics tend to prefer news on Spanish stations, which offer more local and international Latino news plus a smoother style.
News translated to Spanish is tremendously different from Spanish news, said an executive at one Spanish-language network. "Usually, there's only one voice translating every anchor and reporter. There's a bit of delay. And the stories are aimed at Anglos, not Latinos."
It doesn't help that SAP features tend to be buried submenus accessible through TV and VCR remote controls.
WPIX-TV's Berlamino considers the effort worthwhile. Each night, a translator in a booth in Argentina listens to WPIX-TV's newscast and translates over a high-quality phone line back to New York. "Before, I had 100% chance of not reaching the Spanish-speaking population," Berlamino said. "With SAP, I have some chance. Is it slim? Yeah, but it's a chance."