If anyone ever sets out to write a history of Latino media in the United States, he or she could devote a whole chapter to the year 2003, and the chapter could be called “Corporations Plunge into Latino Media.” This, of course, would be a generalization, but essentially, a true one. The Latino media boom is a national phenomenon with Los Angeles at the epicenter of the tremendous spurt of Spanish-language media growth that occurred in 2003. This growth has displayed the same kind of feverish deal making, merger-mania and ambitious rollouts that shaped the Internet explosion.
Univision Communications Inc., with its corporate headquarters and largest television station in Los Angeles, is the key player in this market. KMEX, which is channel 34 on the Los Angeles television dial, is Univision’s flagship station. It is difficult to exaggerate the influence KMEX has in the L.A. area, a megalopolis with 6.2 million Latinos—18% of the entire U.S. Latino population.
According to KMEX’s slick media kits and public relations materials, including a 2002 document entitled “The Hispanic Market,” L.A.’s huge population of Latin American descent ranks ahead of the entire Boston viewing area as a television market. This 18-page Univision publication estimates that Spanish is spoken in 88% of L.A.’s Latino households, which are considerably younger and larger than the average U.S. household. Plus, Univision says, even bilingual Latinos think advertising in Spanish is more persuasive.
Nationally, publishers and broadcasters in Latino media can point to similar statistics when trying to sell their airtime or ad space. In making their sales pitches, they are also helped by the latest government data. The 2000 Census revealed that the U.S. Latino population had increased dramatically during the 1990s to 35 million, over 10 million in California alone. In 2003, the Census Bureau confirmed that Latinos, who can be of any race, were the single largest minority group in the United States—a fact that was played up by the mainstream media, but was greeted ambiguously in the Latino press where many commentators noted that a significant portion of U.S. Latinos are also Black or Indian. Unquestionably, though, it is this demographic explosion that is fueling the growth in Spanish-language media.
In the fall of 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. government’s media regulation arm, approved Univision’s merger with Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., the nation’s largest owner of Spanish-language radio stations. For the entire summer, the FCC had been at the center of a storm of public criticism over its historic decision in June to loosen U.S. media ownership regulations. The changes, which are still being fought over in the U.S. Congress and the courts, favor large corporations and the concentration of media ownership through consolidation. For critics, even some within the FCC, the approval of the Univision merger appeared to be more of the same. Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democrat who is on the five-member FCC, said he believes the Univision merger was approved too hurriedly by a commission that seems unconcerned with preserving a variety of viewpoints and information sources in Spanish-language media. “I’m not saying I would have necessarily opposed that [merger], but we should have looked at how to preserve diversity.” What is certain is that the deal catapulted Univision into the category of a bona-fide media giant. The company now owns 62 television stations, which broadcast either Univision or its sibling, the Telefutura network; these channels reach nearly all the Latino households in the country. There’s also Galavisión, the Spanish-language cable channel, which reaches 5.7 million Latino cable subscribers. With the merger, Univision can also now boast of 65 radio stations that it either owns or programs. This was a very strategic acquisition because Univision also controls three record labels that it says capture 35% of the U.S. Latino music market. The company can now use its radio stations to promote its stable of music talent. Additionally, Univision owns the top Web site for U.S. Latinos, Univision.com, which gets over 1 billion hits a year. With all these properties in its portfolio, Univision raked in a reported $100 million in net income during the first nine months of 2003.
The Univision deal, however, represents only one of many mergers, acquisitions and investments that have convulsed Latino media recently. In 2003 alone, five new Spanish-language daily newspapers were launched or announced in cities like Chicago, Orlando and Dallas; even weeklies received injections of dollars as corporate investors took over. And Miami-based Radio Unica, a national chain of AM talk radio in Spanish, announced that it was looking for buyers. “I think there are fewer entrepreneurs that are owning and operating Spanish-language media than before. I think that’s unfortunate,” says Walter Ulloa, CEO and Chairman of Entravision, an L.A.-area conglomerate that runs Spanish-language television stations, including Univision affiliates, FM radio stations and billboards. “I am a big advocate of Latinos having ownership,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s the owner that can influence content, and the content is what people listen to and watch every day.”
The stampede of investors into Latino media is transforming the business, with corporations’ bottom-line motivations and corporate values eclipsing an old guard of community-based entrepreneurs and journalists, says Hilbert Morales, publisher of the San Jose, California bilingual weekly, El Observador. “The diversity of opinion and that kind of perception through a different cultural value system, that different kind of ethos, that will disappear” with corporate involvement in ethnic media, he says. Corporations talk about community coverage as they rush to roll out Latino publications and broadcast outlets, but only as an afterthought. According to Morales, “They are establishing their own Spanish-language media, not to serve that community… but to divert Spanish-language advertising dollars to help their bottom-line.”
In newspapers, the Chicago-based Tribune Co. has arguably made the biggest splash with its successful Hoy brand, a tabloid format daily that expanded to Chicago last year after establishing a successful flagship edition in New York City. Also last year, Knight Ridder launched a new daily, El Diario La Estrella, in Ft. Worth, Texas. Another major newspaper chain, the Hearst Corp., announced in 2003 that it would offer a new Spanish-language weekly insert called “Diversión” through its King Features Syndicate. Javier Aldape, publisher of El Diario La Estrella, acknowledges that the paper’s first loyalty is to Knight Ridder’s company-wide journalism standards, which value accuracy and objectivity. But, he says, “I don’t believe that impedes us from being advocates for our community, whether it is in Spanish or in English.” Privately, though, many reporters at Spanish-language newspapers controlled by mainstream media corporations say there is an ongoing culture clash between an activist vision of Latino journalism and the strict standards of “objectivity” still preferred by media corporations.
This clash was evident last year in Los Angeles when the country’s largest Spanish-language daily, La Opinión, suddenly announced a “divorce” from Tribune, which had owned 50% of the newspaper. Members of the Lozano family—grandchildren of Ignacio E. Lozano, who founded the newspaper in 1926—are now searching for venture capital to help them make the paper independent. The paper’s editorial board, in a message to readers the day the split with Tribune was made public, declared that La Opinión considered its community-oriented vision “incompatible” with its former partner’s goals: “We are in deep disagreement with the idea that a newspaper be principally a vehicle for marketing or that we be forced to abandon the principles that are close to our hearts.” La Opinión President Mónica Lozano says, “This [newspaper] was founded on the principles of service to the community and serving as the voice for those who didn’t have one.”
Tribune, for its part, is saying that it supports La Opinión, which has a circulation of 130,000, becoming an independent newspaper. But industry journal Editor & Publisher, along with The Wall Street Journal, claims that such a statement is disingenuous. Both sources say Tribune is expected to expand its Hoy brand newspapers to Los Angeles, perhaps as early as the beginning of this year, in which case its investment in La Opinión would conflict with those plans, since the company in effect would be competing with itself. Tribune’s business model for its Hoy newspapers includes the creation of an integrated chain of newspapers to maximize “business efficiencies.” National and international news, for example, can come from a central news desk in New York City, says Tribune spokeswoman Christine Hennessey. When Tribune’s Chicago Spanish-language publication converted from a weekly known as Éxito to the daily Hoy, she explains, Tribune only had to add “three or four” editorial staffers.
La Opinión has retained the services of high-profile global investment bank UBS AG as it hunts for a new set of financial backers. José I. Lozano, La Opinión publisher and CEO, argues that the future of medium-sized Latino media like his newspaper will depend on their ability to access cash in order to diversify, expand and be strong enough to resist competitive pressure. “I would love to own radio and TV in Los Angeles, but the question is access to capital,” he says. “We would love to compete with the Univisions of the world.” The truth behind Lozano’s words is that even in today’s world of Internet self-publishing and hand-held digital video cameras, media is an expensive business.
In order to grow on a national or even a regional scale, a media outlet must attract hefty investments, either by issuing shares in a stock market or by attracting moneyed investors. Those investors often arrive with their own agenda.
In July 2003, Entravision announced that it was selling 90-year-old New York City Spanish-language daily El Diario/La Prensa for some $20 million to a private group whose makeup was an alphabet soup of investment firms: Clarity Partners LP, BMO Halyard Partners, ACON Investments and Knight Paton Media. Only a few months later, the paper’s editor, Gerson Borrero, resigned when the new owners decided to spike a column he had planned to run penned by Cuban President Fidel Castro. Borrero says the Castro column, which was to deal with Cuban education, was the first in a planned series of columns by different Latin American leaders. “If there’s space for George W. Bush, then there should be space for Fidel Castro, whether people consider him a dictator or not,” Borrero says. While Borrero resigned as editor on October 1, he stayed on as a columnist. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Both Hoy and the English-language New York Daily News decided to publish Castro’s column, embarrassing El Diario/La Prensa’s new owners and challenging their editorial decision-making.
Likewise, other recent controversies surrounding deals in Latino media have revolved around exactly who is behind the capital and what strings are attached. In 2001, when the second-place Spanish-language television network Telemundo was looking for suitors, it was General Electric—the mega-corporation that owns the NBC television network—that stepped in with a $2 billion acquisition. The deal triggered a great deal of hand wringing in the Latino community, foreshadowing some of the criticisms of the Univision merger. Some Latino advocacy groups—including the National Council of La Raza—expressed fears that the deal could erode Telemundo’s links to the Latino community. “I think that is a concern everyone has,” acknowledged Eddie Dominguez, manager of Telemundo’s San Jose, California-based San Francisco Bay Area station, in a 2002 interview. He was hopeful, however, that the partnership between mainstream and Latino media embodied by the NBC-Telemundo fusion would help change the entire media landscape for the better. “Maybe there’s a possibility that we’ll affect NBC culturally as much as they affect us…. Maybe we’ll sensitize, so on the network level you’ll start to see more of what looks like America.”
The controversy over the Telemundo merger was mild in comparison to the response to Univision’s merger with Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. last year. The FCC-approved merger paved the way for Univision’s entry into radio over the objections of some of the company’s competitors, as well as some Latino activists and politicians, who argued that Univision was being allowed to amass too much power. They complained that the new company would have as much as 70% of the entire ad market for Latinos. The $3.5 billion deal also attracted scrutiny because non-Latino investors, including A. Jerrold Perenchio, an Italian American who is Univision’s longtime CEO and largest shareholder, played an important role. The criticisms were tinged with allegations of right-leaning political bias, which Univision went to pains to try to deflect. Months before the merger was approved, The Roll Call, the influential newspaper of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., published an article headlined: “Univision Battle Heats Up.” The article cited accusations from New Jersey Rep. Bob Menendez, who heads the powerful House Democratic Caucus, that Univision was trying to curry favor for its merger by airing programming that was favorable to a conservative White House judicial nominee, Miguel Estrada, whose appointment was eventually blocked by Democrats in the U.S. Senate. The Roll Call article also mentioned ads published by critics of the merger pointing out that the fusion would create a Spanish-language media powerhouse under the control of two “non-Hispanic media czars.” The reference was to Perenchio and L. Lowry Mays, the Texan who heads Clear Channel Communications, which owned a chunk of Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. Clear Channel, of course, is the poster child for the consequences of media consolidation. In the late 1990s, after a 1996 telecommunications deregulation bill was approved by the U.S. Congress, the company succeeded in establishing unprecedented dominance over music radio and the live music industry with its control of some 1,200 U.S. radio stations, as well as hundreds of concert venues and billboards. A flurry of news articles on the Univision merger also pointed out that both men are well-known contributors to Republican causes; Perenchio even lobbied for an L.A. hospital that he helped fund to be named after former President Ronald Reagan.
Stephanie Pillersdorf, Univision’s spokeswoman, points out that Clear Channel’s stake in Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. was actually diluted by the merger and that Clear Channel now only controls a 3% stake in the post-merger Univision. Plus, she says, apart from Perenchio, the real players in the deal were not U.S.-based investors, but Latin American media companies, which increased their stake in Univision as a result of the merger. Venevisión, Venezuela’s leading television network and television producer, now owns 19% of Univision Communications Inc. And Mexico’s Televisa, the largest producer of Spanish-language television programming in the world, controls 15%. Univision also responded to the allegations of bias with a public relations counterattack, publishing a full-page ad in The New York Times. The ad featured a letter penned by Henry Cisneros, a former Univision president who was also U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary under President Bill Clinton. Cisneros’s letter flatly denies all the innuendos of bias and ownership distant from Latino community interests, stressing the company’s diverse stock owners, that Latinos make up more than 50% of its board of directors and its overwhelmingly Latino workforce.
Critics still insisted that the Spanish-language broadcast market should be regulated under the assumption that it is separate from the English-language market and, therefore, Univision should be barred from proceeding with the merger because it would become too dominant. The National Association of Hispanic Publications, or NAHP, which brings together over 200 publications, said it opposed the Univision merger because the new company would control over two-thirds of the entire Latino ad market. “This kind of dominance of the Hispanic media world means only one thing: less diversity in news, less voices for the millions of listeners,” said Hernán Guaracao, NAHP president. But Univision argued that the merger was “pro-competition” because it would allow Latino media to be a stronger force in the fight for all U.S. listeners and viewers. Additionally, in a September 5 press release, Univision said that to impose a “separate regulatory framework” on a company that chooses to serve a minority audience is “discriminatory,” since mainstream media companies have been allowed to complete similar mergers.
Univision is not shy about talking up its political clout, but insists that its only bias is a single-minded determination to serve its viewers by boosting their political participation and engagement with U.S. civic life. Of course, it is in the company’s own self-interest for more of its viewers to participate in U.S. politics, since that legitimates its audience. Whatever its motivations, the company has tried to serve as a community advocate at crucial junctures in the political life of U.S. Latinos. In Los Angeles, where Univision station KMEX pulls in as many as 450,000 viewers for its 6 p.m. news, the station’s news director Jorge Mettey described his editorial mission during California’s historic recall election in October 2003: “We are focusing on promoting the vote of the Hispanic community, that is the focus of our coverage.” During the recall, the station was extremely critical of Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s links to party leaders seen as anti-immigrant by large sectors of the Latino community. In 1994, Univision, along with La Opinión and other Spanish-language media, was key in a voter registration and citizenship campaign led by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in the wake of Proposition 187—the voter initiative that sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants. It was passed by California voters, but later overturned by the courts. In the aftermath of Proposition 187, which many Latinos saw as racist and divisive, Univision aired television spots aimed at increasing the political participation of Latinos. “It became clear that the only way Latinos were going to put a stop to those types of reactions was to become citizens themselves,” says Patricia Ramos, public affairs director for KMEX. “But not only that, Latinos also had to register to vote.”
Some members of the Latino community wonder how much Univision will compromise its commitment to political education and voting rights as it continues to grow. Univision, of course, says not at all. But it’s clear that competitive pressures are growing on all the players in Spanish-language broadcast media, and that their dedication to civic engagement could change. Latinos have not assimilated to U.S. culture as unambiguously as other major immigrant groups have in the past. Many Latinos—even those born in the United States—have held on to the Spanish language and Latin American cultures as central components of their identity. But there is still the feeling that new bilingual generations will force Spanish-language broadcasters and publishers to compete more directly with mainstream media giants. This likelihood may boost spending on market research and fuel ratings races, but not necessarily strengthen community involvement and the Latino media’s role as a bridge-builder between Latinos and civic institutions. Another source of pressure is technology. Mainstream media conglomerates are racing to acquire satellite television systems and cable channels. In this area, Latino broadcast media lag behind. Univision only has a single cable channel and nascent involvement in satellite and digital television.
With costs sky-high and rising, and demands for profits built into the corporate model, it may become increasingly difficult for Univision and others to invest in improving or overhauling programming, or to continue developing solid local and U.S. news coverage. Felix Gutiérrez, a visiting professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications, says Spanish-language television “news programs are still fairly strong from what I see, but the rest of the schedule is dominated by shows that lower rather than raise the information awareness of people in this society.” Furthermore, he believes that the advertising on Spanish-language television manipulates immigrants’ insecurities and “preys on [Latinos’] desire to show they are making it in this society.” When Gutiérrez is talking about shows that “lower” information awareness, he is putting it diplomatically. On Univision, a comedy variety show like “Los Metiches” has a regular character named “La Tetanic,” an off-color nickname for a well-endowed Argentine model who appears in various stages of undress. It’s no secret that a bulk of the non-news programming on Univision and its competitors is composed of daytime and primetime soap operas and gossipy talk programs, which are then followed by naughty nighttime variety shows—some reinforcing the brands of sexism and racism present in Latin American nations. Many of these programs are imported, maquiladora-style, from Latin America’s big production houses, so they are not produced with U.S. Latino talent or sensibilities.
Many of Latin America’s media giants, including Televisa, Venevisión and TV Azteca, have huge financial stakes in television aimed at U.S. Latinos, as they attempt to reach the portion of Latin America’s population and spending power that is shifting north. The up-to-the-minute technologies that allow media to track who and how many are watching their shows feed Latino broadcast media’s emphasis on sure bets: sex, escapism, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Radio, where the emphasis is on shock jocks, formulaic play-lists and jacking up the ratings, is no different. At a recent ethnic media conference, José C. Cancela, president of Radio Unica, was asked if his chain of Spanish-language talk radio was focused on information or entertainment. “It’s entertainment,” he said. “We’re in this to make a buck.” In newspapers, if the commercial success of Tribune’s Hoy is any indication, the trend is toward more homogenized content, sensationalistic reporting, gossip and crime-oriented tabloid style coverage.
It may be unfair to single out Latino media when complaints of trashy content, manipulative advertising and questionable production practices can also be leveled against U.S. mainstream media companies. But then, mainstream media are not claiming a unique role as the communications bridge between a larger mainstream society and a primarily immigrant U.S. minority group that is hungry for inclusion, information and perhaps, above all, a vehicle for self-expression.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marcelo Ballvé is an associate editor at the Pacific News Service and covers Latin America and U.S. immigrant communities. His essay “Copacabana Beach” was published by Penguin Putnam in the non-fiction anthology Regeneration: Telling Stories from Our Twenties. He can be contacted at email@example.com.