The country's fastest growing network

Univision reaches almost all Hispanic households, and it exercises a powerful cultural influence.

May 02, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

ABC, NBC and CBS all make some version of the on-air claim, "More Americans get their news from (fill in the blank) than anywhere else." Fox and ESPN also make the same kind of claim on sports coverage.

But when it comes to the news that will be made at Camden Yards tomorrow night when the Orioles play a Cuban all-star team, the network with the most legitimate right to make the claim is one you might not recognize: Univision, the nation's leading Spanish-language network.

Now under the leadership of Henry Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Univision reaches 92 percent of Hispanic households in the United States -- a market of 30 million and growing at five times the rate of the non-Hispanic population. With 21 owned stations, 39 affiliates, the Galavision cable channel, and 19 of the 20 top-rated Spanish-language programs in the country, Univision's average audience share is 80 percent -- that's an 80 share or 24 million viewers.

And Cisneros believes there is nothing but more growth ahead, as the advertising community comes to understand how important Spanish-language programming is to many Hispanic viewers.

"A lot of advertisers haven't understood the importance of the Latino market," Cisneros said. "People need information about work, culture and education. This [Univision] gives people the tools they need in this country. It's totally consistent with a progressive American future."

Univision has certainly progressed nicely since Cisneros became president and chief operating officer in 1997. (Southern California entrepreneur A. Jerrold Perenchio is the chairman and CEO.)

Its growth in the past year with the key demographic of adults 18-to-49 years old is greater than that of any other network or cable channel. While Univision grew by 334,000 viewers in prime time from February '98 to February '99, the nearest competition was the WB with 281,000 and ESPN with 227,000 new viewers.

By comparison, ABC lost 272,000, UPN 603,00, CBS 639,000 and NBC 1,474,000 viewers during that same period. On most nights, Univision is now the fifth most-watched network in prime time.

It is also growing in prestige. In 1997, it became the first Spanish-language broadcaster to win an Edward R. Murrow Award, given by the Radio and Television News Directors Association. Univision won for its coverage of the bombing at the Olympic games in Atlanta.

In 1997, it also launched "Despierta America" ("Wake Up America"), a live two-hour morning show broadcast from Miami, which Univision describes as "The 'Today' show with a salsa beat."

That same year, Cisneros' Washington connections helped Univision land a town hall meeting with President Clinton. Candidates for the next presidential election are said to be lining up to reach the network's audience.

"Cisneros' connections are having a very positive impact on the company," said Jessica Reif, an media analyst with Merrill Lynch, in relation to the town hall meeting. "It shows up in other ways as well, because Cisneros is doing a great job in getting advertisers to pay attention."

While Baltimore is one of the smaller markets for Univision with neither an owned station nor an affiliate, it is representative of the way the network continues to gain audience. TCI, which holds the cable franchise in the city, recently added Univision to its lineup, providing an instant delivery system into several thousand new homes.

The majority of the network's owned and strongest broadcast stations are in areas of large Hispanic populations, such as California, Texas, Florida, New York and New Jersey. KMEX-TV, in Los Angeles, has been on the air for 34 years. Closer to Baltimore, there is an owned station in Philadelphia and an affiliate in Washington.

But as impressive as the growth of Univision is, the larger story yet to be told is the cultural one suggested by Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute of California, who said of Cisneros, "He is now head of a major network that has its most significant impact on first-generation immigrants."

Just as motion pictures and foreign-language newspapers were to Eastern European immigrants in the early part of this century, so is Univision today as a force of acculturation. It is giving immigrants more than just the "tools" Cisneros mentioned. It is providing values and lessons as to how one should live in America. It is offering role models, setting limits on behavior and defining the good life.

Tomorrow night on Univision, that profound process of socialization via the media will include baseball just as it did for hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans in an earlier time who learned English not in a classroom but from the radio following the exploits of their newfound heroes on the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers.

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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