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Uphill Battle For Spanish Kids’ Programmers

3/30/2007 8:02 PM Eastern

Spanish-language broadcasters focus little attention and effort on kids’ programming, while cable networks targeting young viewers who speak that language suffer from limited carriage.

And the ratings and revenue for kids’ shows on both media pale in comparison to the widely distributed English-language cable children’s networks that lavish time and money on developing shows featuring Latino characters.

One out of four Hispanics is under the age of 14 and one out of every five preschoolers is Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And many of them are the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

But despite these numbers, the Hispanic television industry has for decades placed little emphasis on Spanish-language kids’ programming. Innovation in this area has been left to public television and the cable networks.

“Over the last decade, there has been a significant erosion of kids viewing on broadcast and [an increase] on cable,” said Rick Rodriguez, president and general manager of qubo, which manages the kids’ programming blocks on Ion Media Network stations, NBC and Telemundo.

“There has been an erosion of the dedication of broadcast networks to kids programs,” Rodriguez said. “All are doing just about the minimum required by the Federal Communications Commission.”

MINIMAL EFFORT?

Or not even the minimum, in market-leader Univision’s case. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission fined the network a record-breaking $24 million for failing to meet the agency’s requirement to broadcast three hours a week of educational and informative programming for children.

As part of the consent decree, Univision — which is in the process of being sold to a consortium of private-equity firms — is supposed to name a compliance officer and create an advisory committee to ensure future compliance. Joe Uva, who becomes CEO once the sale is completed, said in a press release “this important step paves the way to close [the] acquisition of Univision. The press release made no mention of a commitment to children’s programming.

And then there’s the question of what actually constitutes kids programming. The United Church of Christ has pursued regulatory action for about two years against Univision for presenting telenovelas such as the Televisa-produced Cómplices al Rescate as shows that comply with the FCC’s so-called E/I mandate.

The show’s synopsis on the Televisa-owned Web site EsMas.com spells out the central role in the novela of an uncle who kidnaps one niece and isolates another. The novela also features an emotionally distant mother and the sudden death of a loving father.

Univision is currently airing another novela, Amy la Niña de la Mochila Azul, on Saturday mornings. EsMas.com describes one of the show’s characters as the embezzling head of an orphanage who uses charitable donations to finance her personal jewelry collection. Univision’s sister network, Telefutura, airs Carita de Angel, in which a young child tries to persuade her widowed father to woo and marry a young nun.

Professor Federico Subervi of Texas State University - San Marcos, who filed an expert opinion to bolster the UCC’s demands for regulatory action, argues that programs such as Cómplices al Rescate “comply with neither the letter nor the spirit” of the FCC’s educational and informative requirement.

TRANSLATIONS PLEASE

Univision is also airing a translated version of the former PBS program Where On Earth is Carmen Sandiego? as well the Venevision-produced Ultrachamos, which is explicitly educational.

Telemundo’s qubo block airs decidedly more child-friendly fare than telenovelas on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Programs like Veggie Tales and Jane and the Dragon run on NBC and Telemundo at the same time. The block launched in September and has not been a ratings winner.

“Ratings have not been what we would like,” said Rodriguez. “The challenge we are facing with Telemundo is finding the best time to schedule the show.”

Rodriguez would rather not run the same kids programs in English on NBC and in Spanish on Telemundo at the same exact time, which is what happens on the West Coast. He said he does not have the flexibility to change the timing of the kids’ shows on Telemundo. He’d also like to acquire more culturally relevant kids programming to air on the broadcast network.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

Despite the challenges, Rodriguez — who has spent most of his career working in cable — remained upbeat. “There is still an opportunity when you consider broadcast affords the largest budget and allows you to aggregate a larger audience,” he said.

Telemundo declined to make an executive available for this article. In a March 3 Miami Herald article, though, Telemundo executive vice president of entertainment Carlos Bardasano said: “We’ve tried hard on this, but the audience is not there. Kids start to learn English very, very fast and they’re focused on English-language TV.”

Professor Subervi disputes such claims, however: “They invest little, obtain poor results and then say, 'Oh, it is not worth making the investment.’ ”

Spanish-language broadcasters have been very successful in attracting children to watch primetime telenovelas, despite their clearly adult themes. Univision’s La Fea Más Bella was the highest-ranked Spanish-language show among kids 2 to 5 and 6 to 11 during the February sweeps, according to Nielsen Media Research. The highest-rated episode pulled in 434,000 viewers aged 2 to 5 and 512,000 viewers aged 6 to 11.

AN AUDIENCE AWAITS

Does this mean Hispanic parents aren’t interested in finding Spanish-language programming for their kids to watch? At least a half-dozen surveys conducted over the past three years indicate that’s not so.

“There is a large audience that needs to be served,” said Leonard Firestone, chief operating officer of Firestone Communications, which owns the Spanish-language children’s network Sorpresa.

The network, which marked four years on the air last month, now has 600,000 subscribers, according to a filing last year with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It also sells eight hours a week of kids’ shows to Azteca America.

“There is an appetite for Spanish-language kids programming,” said Discovery Networks U.S. Hispanic Group senior vice president and general manager Luis Silberwasser. “I think cable is a natural medium for that.”

But cable and satellite operators have yet to show much of an appetite for Discovery Kids en Español, which launched a year and a half ago. Silberwasser refused to provide subscriber numbers for the networks and said only that the channel is available on Cox systems. He won’t say where else the network is available but distribution is still small enough that Discovery Kids en Español isn’t even trying to sell advertising.

V-me TV is much more widely distributed thanks to its status as a Spanish-language multicast public-television network.

Senior vice president and chief content officer Guillermo Sierra commissioned focus groups and research in five cities ahead of the network’s launch last month to help identify Latino viewing needs. That research produced loud-and-clear statements from parents suggesting V-me could make a significant difference in the area of preschool programming. Much of the morning lineup consists of such fare, including Spanish-language versions of Lunar Jim and Sesame Street.

ACCULTURATION ISSUES

Sierra described the challenge facing young Hispanic parents as this: “How do I retain the best of my culture while at the same time help my child adapt to this new culture in which they are living?”

Discovery Kids en Español also focuses on preschoolers because “it is where we can provide the best quality programming where kids and parents viewing habits are more aligned,” said Silberwasser. (Both Sierra and qubo’s Rodriguez formerly worked for Silberwasser.) Aligned is another way of saying that at that age, parents, rather than children, still ostensibly control the remote.

And in the case of Latin American immigrants, Spanish is the primary language young children speak at home. Once those kids enter school and begin learning and socializing in English, viewing habits can change. After preschool, Silberwasser said, it becomes “much harder” to draw kids to shows in Spanish.

Subervi stressed the need for Spanish-language kids’ programming, saying “the affirmation of a culture has to take place in the primary language of that culture.”

Subervi has worked as a consultant for two English-language kids’ shows, Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer and Scholastic’s Maya and Miguel. Both shows feature Latino characters who speak Spanish but the primary language in each case is English. Despite his work for these shows, Subervi doesn’t believe they should replace Spanish-language kids’ programming.

BILINGUAL SUCCESS

Nickelodeon and Disney Channel have enjoyed particular success with preschool shows that feature Latinos as lead characters who speak Spanish words and phrases. According to Nielsen’s Hispanic Television Index, Go, Diego, Go! averaged 233,000 Latino viewers for each of its weekday episodes during the February sweeps period.

In-house research conducted to gauge viewer response to Playhouse Disney’s Handy Manny indicated Hispanic mothers were “thankful they were hearing Spanish on preschool TV,” according to Nancy Kanter senior vice president of original series. That gratefulness stemmed from a fear, according to Kanter, that their children “were losing touch with their Spanish.”

Advertisers and toy makers have enthusiastically embraced shows like Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go!, but have yet to flock to Spanish-language kids’ television. Sorpresa counts kid-centric restaurant Chuck E. Cheese, Kellogg’s cereals and Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console among its advertisers, but the amount they have spent is tiny in comparison to the revenue brought in by a popular show at Playhouse Disney or Nick Jr.

“The children’s advertising environment is significantly smaller than the advertising environment for adults. Secondly, you have significantly more restrictions as far as what type of product can be advertised towards children [and] the context in which they can be advertised,” said Rodriguez. “And then, like everything, the Spanish market is a subset of the English-dominant market so again, yes, it is naturally going to be a much, much smaller opportunity.”

AD ISSUES

Smaller still if advertisers are unconvinced that advertising on Spanish-language kids shows is necessary.

Fisher-Price, which licenses Dora and Diego toys, began marketing to Hispanics three years ago. They started but have since abandoned advertising on Spanish-language television.

“The general-market version of our television commercials were being consumed just as readily as the Spanish-language [versions], if not more so. Their recall was of the commercial in English, not Spanish. So that led us to say, 'Hey, you know what, [Hispanic kids] are really consuming general-market TV,’ ” said Fisher-Price director of public relations and brand marketing Brenda Andolina. The toymaker now spends that money formerly allocated to television on other forms of Hispanic marketing.

Despite the difficulties, qubo’s Rodriguez said that providing quality Spanish-language kids programming is a “worthwhile challenge.”

He added: “In many ways, the FCC’s decision against Univision certainly should be a wake-up call to the entire industry to take this challenge more seriously and to again redouble its efforts to reach out to Hispanic children.”

 

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