– Many Americans click past Univision's melodramatic Mexican soap operas and sportscasters yelling "GOOOOOOAL!" But after a couple of recent rating coups, the Spanish-language TV network is carving out a Latino face on the Mount Rushmore of broadcast television alongside NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX.
For the first time, Univision bested the major English-language networks for an entire week among young adults. And Univision's historic bilingual presidential debate last week attracted the most 25- to 54-year-old viewers of any televised debate thus far.
The rising prominence of Spanish-language media is prompting concerns – including from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – about a slowing of the acculturation of immigrants. While the Hispanic media offer a different lens on American culture, many experts argue they often help educate recent immigrants about the US while preserving Spanish among their English-speaking children.
"The difference with Spanish-language broadcast is it's really community-oriented news and it's news you can use," says Veronica Villafañe, former head of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. "They actually encourage assimilation: This is where you go to get services; these are your rights. It's really an education channel."
In heavily Hispanic regions of the US, Univision has dominated for some time in local news ratings, says Alan Albarran, director of the Center for Spanish Language Media at the University of North Texas. He concurs that Spanish-language news is more focused on community issues, spending much less time "chasing sirens."
"One of the challenges that English-language newscasts are facing is that there are so many of them doing it," says Dr. Albarran. "They are all trying to carve out some piece of the pie. So many of them have been reduced to just 'give me visual elements.' "
While Spanish-language media are expanding – especially newspapers – the comparatively narrow range of options raises concerns for some.
"If you understand English, you can get [news] anywhere. But if you are always relying on one or two [Spanish] stations, you are going to get a certain filter," says Rob Toonkel, spokesman for US English, a group advocating that English be made the official language. "People who don't speak any English could then be segmented. They could be told a message that may not jive with what's being told to English speakers."
He uses as an example past presidential candidates trumpeting opinions supporting abortion rights on their English-language websites, while omitting them en español.
There's also a more basic worry that if immigrants spend too much time listening to Spanish, their acquisition of English will suffer – a controversial argument put forth this summer by Governor Schwarzenegger, himself an immigrant.
Many Latino leaders reject this, saying immigrants are surrounded by English, particularly in the work world. Moreover, their struggles with English don't carry over to their US-educated children. By the second generation, the majority of Latinos get their news exclusively from English-language media, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
However, a 2004 Pew report found that the language in which Latinos got their news had a significant influence on their political views . For example, 63 percent of US-born Hispanics said that President Bush did not have a clear plan for success in Iraq. That number dropped slightly to 60 percent among the foreign-born who get all their news in English, but dropped significantly to 53 percent among those who get at least some news in Spanish.
But those getting their news from Spanish-language media aren't necessarily linguistically isolated. Pew found that nearly half of the adult Hispanic population turns to both English and Spanish media.
These bilinguals "are getting a broader view," says Ms. Villafañe, who points out that many people turn to stations like Univision to get more international news.
Univision's strong ratings, particularly among young adults, are partly demographic destiny. There are now 42 million Latinos in America, and their median age is 27, compared with 36 in the general population.
The media habits of Hispanics also bolster Univision. Television remains a family-viewing activity, helping the network capture younger viewers who are watching news and telenovelas with parents, says Albarran.
At the same time, the major networks are losing their audiences to cable and the Internet, but the Spanish-speaking community remains behind that technological curve. "They are still more loyal to broadcast television," Villafañe says.
That loyalty put Univision on top for the week of Aug. 27 through Sept. 3 among 18- to 34-year-olds, edging out the nearest competitor FOX.
Some skeptics say Nielsen fails to factor in whether a person is US-born or not. Nielsen does not ask the question to avoid scaring immigrants from taking part. Instead, the company asks what languages a person speaks.
"What shows people watch has nothing to do with language, it has to do with nativity," argues Robert Rose, a TV producer who founded the group Help! Change TV to push Nielsen to change its sample. He says self-reported language abilities are not hard data, and he suspects Nielsen is undersampling US-born Latinos.
Nielsen responded that its own research indicates that language is in fact a better predictor of TV habits.
Mr. Rose and others say second- and third-generation Latinos – many of whom watch both English and Spanish programs – remain underserved.
"Because [producers] assume the real Latinos just watch Spanish-language TV, when they do put a Latino in their shows it's usually a stereotypical representation," says Rose. That leaves younger US-born Latinos stuck: "Their parents' TV is corny, but on English-language shows they are just the drug dealer or the maid."