VALDEZ, MUNOZ, GARCIA - Attention, TV viewers with Spanish surnames. The A. C. Nielsen Company may be looking for you. While the major networks try to find out where their dwindling audiences are going, two Spanish-language networks have hired the national TV ratings service to see how many viewers have come their way. If the pilot study begun in 200 homes during the summer proves successful - and early indications are that it will - the service will go nationwide.
Stakes are high. The two networks, Telemundo and Univision, are shelling out $40 million for the service in hopes of persuading advertisers to invest in the $171 billion Hispanic TV market in the US.
``The history of Hispanic television has been severely hampered by the problem of measurement,'' says Emilio Nicholas, general manager of KMEX-TV here, the nation's largest Spanish-language station. KMEX-TV pulls in nearly one-tenth of the total $583 million in ad revenue paid to Spanish-language TV, radio, and print nationwide. With one-third of L.A. households known to be Hispanic, Mr. Nicholas thinks his revenue could be 10 times as high, and the national figure five times as high.
AFTER decades of second-class status as a ragtag collection of UHF outlets, Spanish-language TV has become one of the fastest-growing segments of the television industry.
Founded 27 years ago, Univision was the first Spanish-language service, and it now reaches 5.1 million or 90 percent of the US Hispanic households. Telemundo, begun three years ago, reaches 75 percent. The two air on about 570 affiliates.
At the better of those affiliates, both quality of programming and number of viewers have become a force to be reckoned with. The nightly newscast of KMEX, for instance, has the largest 18- to 34-year-old audience (the prime demographic for advertisers) of any newscast in Los Angeles, beating NBC, ABC, and CBS.
In line with the rapid growth of Telemundo and Univision, as well as new census figures, many English-language stations are seizing the initiative to woo Hispanic viewers in Miami, Houston, and L.A. Recent developments here include special series on minorities (KCAL), Spanish simulcasts of news (KCBS), and new beats on ethnic communities (KTLA).
And if the US Census Bureau has it right, America's Hispanic community of 22 million will grow 40 percent over the next decade, in contrast to overall population growth of about eight percent. That could be an enticement for the 500 largest advertisers on English-language TV to run ads on Spanish-language TV as well. Over 100 already do: soft drinks (Coke, Pepsi), household goods (Procter and Gamble), fast-food (Burger King, McDonald's), cars (Ford, Chevy).
But for now, Spanish-language TV reaches five percent of TV households in the US but takes in far less than one percent of the medium's ad revenues. ``In all its years, Hispanic TV has never turned its fair profit,'' contends Nicholas. ``Now, with all its growth, the income potential is enormous.''
Nielsen statistics, beyond verifying numbers of Hispanics who are watching, bring credibility to Spanish TV, observers say.
``Many of the bigger, general-market advertising agencies won't touch Spanish-language TV because they are uncomfortable or untrusting of the audience numbers we give them,'' says Telemundo's Bob Friend.
As in the early days of cable, rich ad agencies looked the other way until operators pooled their resources for viable audience measurement.
Data-gathering methods have included weekly phone and in-house interviews by such companies as Strategic Research Corporation. ``Sometimes it's just that we are using different statistics than they are used to [with the major networks]. Or they just don't believe them.''
Joanne Laverde-Curcio, spokeswoman for Nielsen, says the L.A. pilot project has taught the company much in the process of broadening its sample to 800 homes nationwide. Literature and door-to-door interviews must begin in Spanish with highly-skilled speakers or translations.
Since the typical Hispanic family is larger than the average of American families - and many households typically hold more than one family - 16-button ``people meters'' are more often needed, double the normal number. (The device is a small box that records who's watching what programs.)
The catalogue of gifts used as incentives for families to participate contains different items. ``Hispanics like more gold jewelry,'' says Doug Darfield, director of research at Univision. The typical Hispanic also watches one-third more TV on average than other Americans, and earns 80 percent as much income. Heads of households are far younger on average.
Darfield says he is satisfied that Nielsen's improved attempts to reach so-called ``unassimilated'' Hispanics makes the sample information far more valuable than standard Nielsen Hispanic statistics, which tended to favor English-speaking Hispanics.
The Spanish television market has traditionally been so underdeveloped that some analysts predict a potential for profit growth larger than that for general broadcasting.
``This project is how we are going to prove that not all Hispanics in the US watch `L.A. Law' and `Cosby' on Thursday nights,'' says Darfield. Preliminary data has already begun to flow from the 200 homes, but Nielsen says organizers will be keeping data secret for now.
Though research on viewing habits will help complete the picture of who watches what, much is still to be learned about the buying habits of Hispanics - and therein lies a hurdle.
``We still have to overcome traditional advertiser bias against our audience,'' says KMEX's Nicholas. He says despite exhaustive research elucidating the demographic and psychographic makeup of Hispanic viewers, general market advertisers assume Hispanic viewers spend less.
``We are one of the most culturally ignorant nations on earth,'' he says. ``I would venture to guess the level of education, income and buying patterns of `Roseanne' viewers to be substantially less than mine [at KMEX] ... but all advertisers look at is the number of viewers.'' He says appealing to an Hispanic audience is cheaper and simpler because the audience is relatively homogenous.
``You don't have to appeal to Blacks, Catholics, Jews, Anglos all at once,'' he says. ``Yet advertisers invent the most incredible perceptions of Puerto Ricans as being different from Cubans from Mexicans and all the rest. The difference [between Hispanics from different countries] is no [greater] than a Manhattanite to a Brooklynite.''
Darfield adds that the new Hispanic profile provided by Nielsen in coming years will help producers create programs Hispanics want to watch.
``When Spanish TV began 25 years ago, it was almost as a conduit for Mexican programs coming into the US,'' he explains. ``If we are going to meet the needs of the growing Spanish community, we are going to have to know what they are.''