KMEX, the `little UHF station down the street,' loved by growing Latino audience

Not always -- here in the world's entertainment capital -- has Spanish-language television been the last word in international glamour and financial pull. In humbler days, when it was the only UHF station in the city, KMEX had to persuade potential viewers to buy a little black converter box for their sets. The only rating it could boast of was a letter from a manufacturer noting how many converters it had sold.

So a memorable Sunday evening, after the crisis in Mexico city -- as host Ricardo Montalban wiped tears from his eyes after a 12-hour international KMEX telethon that raised over $7 million for earthquake relief -- marked a sort of coming of age for the station.

KMEX, as president and station manager Danny Villanueva puts it, is no longer ``that little Mexican UHF station down the street.''

In the last two years it has become competitive in the audience ratings with Los Angeles' English-language stations, including the CBS, NBC, and ABC affiliates. Sometimes it tops them.

Yet KMEX is not yet part of the mainstream of American television. Not only does it broadcast in a different language with mostly South American programming, but the station is also in many ways closer to the heart of its public. To the Latino community here -- advertisers and politician alike -- KMEX is ``OUR Channel 34.''

``Maybe that's the secret to our success,'' says Mr. Villaneuva. ``I've never seen any medium with that kind of relation to its viewers.''

Some cases in point:

KMEX has spent $1.25 million over the past 11 years on food for barrio families at Christmas. Runaways have appeared in the KMEX lobby. When a Salvadorean woman, in the US for an operation, had her money stolen, the station paid for the operation. When a downtown hotel burned down one night, KMEX paid to fly the bodies of the Mexicans inside back to Mexico.

The station has also raised healthy sums in response to Latin American disasters, such as $275,000 after the gas explosion in Mexico City last November.

The best illustration of what KMEX can do was the telethon following the recent Mexico City earthquakes. Planned and executed in one week, the telethon had segments from five US cities, Puerto Rico, and four other countries. Performers ranged from Placido Domingo to Burt Reynolds. It was carried by 354 affiliate stations of the Spanish International Network (SIN), and took pledges for $5.2 million in the US and $2 million abroad. The total US government contribution is, by comparison, $4 million.

Much of the character of KMEX reflects that of the hearty and virtually tireless Villanueva. A former kicker for the Los Angeles Rams, he grew up in a California border town and had to relearn his Spanish as an adult.

But the station's success also reflects the growing size and buying power of the Spanish-speaking audience.

Los Angeles has more Spanish-speaking households than any other media market in the country, followed by New York, Chicago, and Miami. KMEX was the second US station to broadcast in Spanish, beginning in 1962. From that time on, the growth of what eventually became SIN went from steady to stunning.

Four stations connected by satellite in 1966 became 76 affiliates in 1980. As of this July, SIN had 364 affiliates. Advertising revenues went from $15 million in 1980 to a projected $55 million for 1985. SIN estimates its signal reaches 4 million Hispanic households, more than 80 percent of the Hispanic homes in the US.

In Los Angeles, almost three-quarters of the KMEX audience was born in another country, according to Richard Tobin, president of Strategy Research, a market-research firm in Miami. ``Some watch the station because their English-language skills are not too good. But most watch because they prefer the programming. Even if their English is good, the Spanish language has a stronger emotional bond.''

The hot programs on SIN stations these days are the ``novelas,'' prime-time Latin American soap operas. The coverage of soccer and boxing is heavy. News on KMEX is anchored locally in Los Angeles, nationally in Miami, and for 50 minutes every night from Mexico City.

Mr. Villanueva is not shy about the distinctive approach his station takes toward news coverage. When he became news director at KMEX in 1968, he decided that ``orthodox journalism wouldn't do here.'' Without a whole range of media speaking to and for the Latino community, the newscast at KMEX ``had to be a kind of advocacy newscast,'' he says.

This sometimes means taking sides on issues. More often it means sponsoring televised debates between local political candidates, holding conferences for Latino leaders to discuss immigration legislation, or Villanueva himself mediating in community disputes. But, ``We have to walk a fine line between good journalism and keeping our emotional tie to the community,'' he says.

Villanueva and his top staff sit on at least 30 boards of community and service organizations. He also served as boxing commissioner to the 1984 Olympic Games.

The station has always stood as a beacon to Latinos, according to state Sen. Art Torres (D) of Los Angeles; especially when Latinos were not well represented in government. ``It almost started out as a social-services station and has never lost that reputation,'' he says.

``The potential for Channel 34 to develop into a bilingual, bicultural medium that serves all generations of American Hispanics is there. But the core audience is an immigrant audience,'' says David Lopez, a sociologist at University of California, Los Angeles.

Whoever that audience is, advertisers want to reach it -- and they want to use the language that has the greatest emotional impact. Most US Hispanics speak English and hear most commercials in English. But, Dolores Zaky, creative director of J. Walter Thompson's Hispania division, points out: ``One thing is to listen -- they listen, yes; another thing is to pay attention.''

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