TV Is Thinking Big - in Spanish

US and Latin broadcasters look to Pan-American `super-channels'

TELEVISION is now focusing more sharply on the vast Hispanic market in the United States and, simultaneously, is becoming aware of Latin America's rapidly growing audience potential for North American shows.

It's a two-way street. While US broadcasters seek increasing exposure anywhere from Mexico down to Argentina, the Latin Americans are dreaming of one or more Spanish-language "super channels" covering not only their countries by cable and satellite, but extending to the burgeoning Hispanic population in the United States.

The statistics underscore the logic of this expansionist thinking. A recent study by DRI/McGraw-Hill puts the number of Hispanics in this country at better than 24 million, and says it is likely to rise to 31.5 million by the year 2000. This ethnic group currently spends well over $200 billion a year on goods and services, but only 1 percent of the US advertising budget is aimed at Latinos, whose population growth for the '90s is put at 41 percent (compared with 5 percent for non-Hispanics in the US).

At this moment, two major networks serve the Spanish-language community, both based in Miami - Univision (the larger) and Telemundo, headed by the dynamic Joaquin F. Blaya. Each network runs its own stations, and both their signals are carried by satellite and cable.

Programs, while reflecting Latino culture, are varied in type, ranging from soap operas (lots of them) to news, talk programs, game shows, sports, and many musicals of the variety type, hosted by popular performers. Many of the shows are produced in Florida. Others originate in Mexico, Caracas, Buenos Aires, and other TV centers.

Among the top draws are soccer matches, which Latin Americans adore and US stations hardly ever carry.

A third Miami-based Spanish network in the US, GEMS TV, starts broadcasting (on cable) during the first week of March 1993. It aims to reach viewers both in the US and in Latin America, and will specialize in programs of particular interest to women. It wants to be known as "el canal del amor" (the channel of love), and its closest association is with Coral Pictures of Miami, the largest distributor of telenovelas from Venezuela and elsewhere.

Telenovelas closely resemble US soap operas, but have a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, consisting of many more episodes than their US counterparts. They are produced on much lower budgets and in recent years have found a huge export market around the world.

What is generally overlooked is that the Hispanic audience in the US is not only growing larger, but also younger. A new generation of Latinos, educated in North American schools and attuned to US values, is breaking with the traditions of its parents.

While the older people tend to seek out Spanish-language programs, the young would just as happily tune in to an American network. And their numbers are on the rise.

"That new generation still has its roots in Hispanic culture, but it is being largely ignored in US programs," says Augusto Failde, who, with Nely Galan, heads the newly formed Tropix, a subsidiary of Home Box Office (HBO).

"There are millions of young Hispanics out there who don't see their own culture and their unique problems represented on American TV," adds Miss Galan. When only 22, she headed the leading Spanish-language station in New York and produced "Nely," a dual-language talk show that aired in 67 cities.

Tropix's "mission" is to develop programs for the English-speaking Latino audience, utilizing and nurturing new and established Latino actors and specially developed scripts with Hispanic themes. The company hopes these will be acceptable to the American networks and to cable, which are becoming aware of this special category of viewers.

In addition, and with a hopeful eye to the future, Tropix is charged with scouring the various divisions of Time-Warner (which owns HBO) to establish which elements might be useful in the restless Latin American market, said to represent an audience of well in excess of 200 million.

That market is growing fast and already is receiving a good deal of American attention. HBO a year ago launched its HBO Ole service. ESPN, the sports channel, now services Spanish commentary to its affiliates in Latin America, and Ted Turner's TNT beams movies down south. CNN in Spanish is seen throughout Latin America via satellite.

The Latinos themselves have ambitious plans for covering their continent, and they are looking toward the US to accomplish their dream of a Pan-American network.

Quoted in the TV trade publication Video Age International, Carlos Barba, president of Venevision, a supplier of Venezuela-produced Spanish-language programs, predicted that a Latin American super-channel "will become a reality in the '90s. It's a totally logical thing and it is very much in line with the political and economic trends overall."

In a recent development, Hallmark Cards sold its Univision network to a group headed by American producer A. Jerrold Peren- chio for $550 million.

"That Pan-American network is practically a reality now," says Telemundo's Mr. Blaya, who recently upgraded the entire Telemundo program structure.

"TV is a business of networking," he says. "Latin American television is developing just like other TV around the world - only faster."

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