Latinos Speak English…And Networks Are Beginning To Listen

Growing up in San Diego, I remember how many of the local English radio stations would sign off with the Mexican National Anthem. Every night, we – in a very white San Diego – would be lulled to sleep with the sounds of Mexican national patriotism. And this was San Diego, mind you: a military town populated with retired U.S. patriots (and elderly folks looking for good retirement weather).  Growing up on the border, we became used to such ironies and growing up Mexican-American, I lived in a constant state of irony.

I was a border child with a border inside me: one foot in American television and the other in Spanish television. The Pedro Infante films that I watched with my abuela went hand in hand with the images of Gilligan’s Islands, Star Trek and Bonanza. My abuela would cry watching wrestling with me because she thought that the fights between the Anglo muscular brutes were all real. But my favorite image on television was always Desi Arnaz, who loved Lucy and the America that she represented. And Americans loved Desi, regardless of the “Babalu” songs he bellied out each week, which called for the worship of African Gods, “Negra Bembonas” (translation: “thick-lipped Black women”). That was TV then. And, ironically, Desi remains on the air to this day with his decidedly bi-cultural love affair with America.

The television of today has changed radically for Latinos. But the biggest change I see for Latinos is programming in English. Comcast, with its purchase of NBC Universal, has become the biggest media giant in the United States. Comcast is reaching out to those Latinos to mostly ease the fears of the FCC that the mega giant will only hurt diversity. But that is good news for U.S. -born Latinos. And those numbers are huge. Of the 50.5 million Latinos in the United States, 82 percent of the U.S. born Latinos here speak English. They are bilingual according to a report released last year by Scarborough Research, a consumer research firm.

To keep competitive, networks will need a new way to reach those Latinos and the way to reach them is programming in English. Comcast Cable plans to add new networks aimed at Latinos. It recently renewed its distribution pact with nuvoTV (formally Si TV), expanding its reach to 17 million homes. In English but founded by Latinos, nuvoTV offers a mix of typical low-budget programming aimed at Latinos.  Additionally, Comcast plans to add two more English-language Latino channels owned and operated by U.S. Latinos.  This programming has yet to be seen, the verdict is still out. But there are other networks in English in the U.S. that are targeting a younger audience, such as mun2 and MTV’s Tr3s – with their mix of reality shows and music. Comcast, as well as these other networks, will try reaching the acculturated Latinos with programming in English. And that, if done right, could spawn many future Desis.

But what does this mean to Latinos and all other audiences? Networks are recognizing that there is a new way to reach Latinos, and more and more, it is in English. And it’s good news for Latinos like me.  I can hold on to my unique Latino identity and I can enjoy my story in English.

Network programming must be specific to its audience and must understand their identity. BET does it with programming for and by African Americans. LOGO does it with programming for the LGBT community.  And now more and more Latinos can chose programming in English or Spanish. The Walt Disney Co. and Univision Communications Inc. are in talks to create a new 24-hour cable-news channel that will broadcast in English, in an effort to keep pace with changing demographics among U.S. Hispanics and reach a new audience of English speakers. The new channel would plunge Disney’s ABC News more directly into the cable news wars, competing alongside Time Warner Inc’s CNN, News Corp.’s Fox News and Comcast Corp.’s MSNBC. Moreover, Spanish television is adding English. Univision and Telemundo are adding English subtitles to their telenovelas and that was unheard of in the past. All this to start bringing the 82 percent of Latinos who are bilingual to their networks. And this is a huge change.

Latino programming, at least in Spanish, was produced many times out of the country or in Miami, leaving those that don’t speak Spanish or who may not relate to the Cuban experience out of the equation. Also, in the past, advertisers made the mistake of thinking that in order to reach U.S. Latinos they’d have to do it in Spanish. Univision continues to do so with a longstanding supply of international telenovelas. And now Colombian broadcaster RCN and News Corp.’s Fox International Channels are launching a new network in the United States, MundoFox.  It will go head-to-head against Univision, Telemundo, TV Azteca, Telefutura and other Spanish-language broadcasters that are watched coast to coast. But to me, like many younger Latinos born here, programming from Latin America might give viewers a nostalgic trip back home, but to many second generation Latinos it’s as relevant as watching their abuela’s travel slide show.  I’m not saying there is no need for Spanish-language programming; the numbers proves there is. And MundoFox believes there is as well.  But programming for Latinos in English is showing that networks and advertisers recognize that Latinos and their TV habits are changing.

We as a Latino people are changing.  Why should we not reflect that on television? We are living in this country in English. We are not just a Spanish-speaking colony in the middle of an English-speaking world.  Many of the 50.5 million Latinos recognize that you can watch in English and keep your Latino culture alive. Desi knew that. I Love Lucy was co-produced and co-created by a Latino from Cuba living in America… telling his quintessential American story in English. And his show is the longest running program on the air today in any language.

Profound changes are coming to our Latino landscape and they will include more programming for Latinos by Latinos in English. It’s just beginning. But it’s a start. Networks on both sides of the language border recognize that we can “speak English and live Latino.” They are starting to realize that many of the 50.5 million Latinos in the United States are in front of their televisions waiting to watch and listen. And more and more they will listen in English.