The Boston area’s Hispanic population has long suffered from an identity crisis of sorts, with most local television media failing to acknowledge its existence.
Media attention and programming for the fast-growing local Spanish-speaking community may finally make strides, though, as the reality of the Hispanic market becomes too powerful to ignore. It seems like an unstoppable trend nationally, as advertisers catch on to the buying power of the country’s 53 million Latinos, valued at $1.2 trillion in spending annually.
Following that demographic trend, the US Spanish-speaking TV advertising market continues to grow. According to Kantar Media, while ABC, CBS, and NBC saw their total ad revenue fall in the last couple of years, Spanish-language TV ad spending rose 2.9 percent last year.
Yet Boston, for all its progressive politics, has a stodgy TV market. While the local Hispanic population grew 67 percent between 2000 and 2011, Latino programming failed to expand. Local TV’s efforts to reach Latinos have been nibbling around the edges for years: “Centro,” a 5-minute segment that airs Saturday mornings on CBS affiliate WBZ-TV Channel 4; and “Revista Hispana,” a half-hour Sunday show broadcast once a month on WHDH-TV Channel 7, the NBC affiliate in Boston, remain the only Latino-focused network offerings. Meanwhile, WGBH Boston has suspended production of “La Plaza,” one of the country’s longest running television series devoted to Latino issues.
As someone who has worked in Latino media for the past 10 years, I have witnessed cities, towns, and neighborhoods undergo dramatic demographic transformations. East Boston is well established as the city’s de facto Hispanic enclave: 53 percent of its residents identify as Latino. Any given day as you walk through Maverick Square with its Latino panaderías and restaurants, the plaza buzzes with the sounds of Spanish. Up north in Revere, the Latino population grew 182 percent in the last decade.
The media naturally gravitate toward the money, and TV executives say the lack of advertiser interest has kept mainstream TV away from programming geared for Latinos. That leaves an open field for the local affiliates of the two major Spanish-language TV networks in the country: Univision and Telemundo. Still, only “Noticias Univision Nueva Inglaterra,” a half-hour weekday show Univision launched 11 years ago on its local affiliate WUNI-TV, provides regional news in Spanish, despite a hunger for more local content. “The challenge is convincing advertisers that in this region there not only is a sizeable Latino community but that there is economic opportunity in tapping that,” says Alex von Lichtenberg, general manager at WUNI-TV. “But the good news is that there is still considerable room for growth in Spanish-language TV in this market.”
That’s what Comcast senses, and competition may be heating up in the local market. Telemundo Boston, which is part of the NBCUniversal group — both are owned by Comcast — recently moved in with fellow Comcast property New England Cable News.
NBCUniversal and Telemundo are on a mission to expand local programming across the country, and to exploit potential synergies between local affiliates, escalating a fight for audience share with Univision, which dominates in ratings in the most heavily Latino regions of the country. Though the Boston Hispanic TV market represents only about 7 percent of the total TV households in the area, Spanish-language ad spending falls short of that proportion. In other words, Boston advertisers underinvest in Spanish-language TV.
NECN, through NBCUniversal, says it is not ready to comment on plans for Telemundo Boston. But it is very likely that Telemundo Boston will emerge with its own Spanish-speaking programming within a year or so, industry executives say. Indeed, some symbiosis already exists between an all-news cable station like NECN and Telemundo — for instance, NECN reporter and weather personality Nelly Carreño is bilingual. (Carreño is one of the few, if not the only, Hispanic talents among Boston’s mainstream TV channels.)
At a time when Hispanic households that earn $50,000 or more are growing at a faster rate than total US households at that income, Latinos can no longer go unaddressed by Boston media. NBCUniversal’s recent move to put two of its Boston properties under the same roof really marks the first time a Spanish-language TV station has been integrated with a larger media player in the Boston region, and it sets the stage for an expansion of local Latino TV. One can only hope Boston advertisers will take the leap, too.