First of three parts
The media is splintering. The Internet is exploding. Network audience share
is dwindling. Local stations across the country are scraping for viewers as
ratings continue to slide.
Every station that is, except Univision.
In an era of media fragmentation, the country’s most popular
Spanish-language network is consolidating its iron-clad grip on the Hispanic
market. Univision, and its sister network Telefutura, control more than 80
percent of Spanish-language broadcast market nationally.
And in California, Univision is the unquestioned ratings king–in English,
Spanish or otherwise.
“In the Latino market, Univision is the equivalent of CBS and NBC combined
at the height of their popularity [in the 1960s],” said Carlos Rodriguez,
whose polling firm, Latino Opinions, has done work for Univision.
This July, Univision was the most watched network in prime time among all
adults (18-49) in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno, Monterey, Palm Springs
and Bakersfield (and finished a close second in San Francisco and Santa
Barbara), according to Nielsen Media Research, the TV ratings firm.
Univision has such a dominant share of television-watchers that “on
fifty-two nights last season, Univision was the #1 network in any language
among 18-34s” nationwide. That was the message the company broadcast on Nov.
7 in full-page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Univision was not always such a ratings powerhouse. A little more than a
decade ago, in 1993, the top 25 television programs among “Spanish-English
equal” households were all in English–and all on the traditional Big Four
networks, Fox, NBC, CBS, and ABC.
But in May of this year the top 25 rated shows in that same demographic were
all in Spanish. And they were all on Univision.
In fact, between Sept. 2004 and Sept. 2005, ninety-six of the
top 100 shows among all Hispanic adults aged 18-49 were on Univision. While
more than three-fourths of U.S. Hispanics speak English, they are still
tuning into Univision over English-language options.
The only English-language programming to break into the Top 100 was the
Super Bowl–and the pre- and post-game shows surrounding it.
“Everyone is fighting for viewers in the news business,” said Robert Calo,
associate professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley and a former network news
producer. “And viewers are to be had in the Spanish-language market in
Three trends have converged in a perfect storm that has blown Univision by
The first is simple demographics: There is a growing number of Latino
immigrants–and thus potential Spanish-language viewers. Those Latinos are
choosing to watch Spanish-language television. And the network of choice is
The Hispanic population nationally grew by 58 percent between 1990 and 2000,
and in California the number of people speaking Spanish at home grew from
almost 5.5 million in 1990 to more than 8 million in 2000, according to U.S.
Census data. The 2004 Census estimates that more than 12 million, or 34.9
percent, of Californians are Latino, including a whooping 47 percent of the
population in Los Angeles.
That is one reason the Univision-operated station in Los Angeles drew two
and half times as many adults (18-49) as next ranked station during prime
time this July.
Translation: In California’s largest media market–and the second largest
media market in the country–Univision’s audience was bigger than ABC, CBS
and NBC–combined. (Univision is also regularly the top-rated station in New
York City, the biggest media market in America.)
Again, those numbers are for all adults–whether they speak Spanish or not.
The anchor of Univision’s prime-time lineup, and many say the key to its
success, are telenovelas. Imported from Mexico, novelas are soap operas
that, unlike their American counterparts, have a limited run with a defined
beginning, middle and end. And the plot climaxes, more often than not,
during the all-important rating sweeps weeks. (See “The secrets of
Univision’s success” sidebar).
But the tentacles of Univision’s media empire stretch far beyond its
flagship broadcast network. In 2002, the company launched a sister TV
station, Telefutura, which quickly garnered 5 percent of the
Spanish-language television audience, and in some markets already outpaces
Univision’s chief broadcast rival, Telemundo.
Univision’s cable network, Galavision, consistently draws a larger audience
than the 13 other Spanish-language cable networks–combined.
On the web, univision.com is the most popular website among U.S. Hispanics,
and has been since it was launched in 2001.
The Univision Music Group was the top Latin record company in America in
And in 2003, the Federal Communications Commission approved a $3 billion
merger with Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., then one of the nation’s largest
Spanish-radio networks with 68 stations.
In the weeks leading up to the FCC vote, Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle,
Hilary Clinton, and Ted Kennedy all wrote to Republican Chairman Michael
Powell urging him to reject the merger, arguing that it concentrated too
much power in the Spanish-language market. The merger was ultimately
approved along a 3-2 Republican party-line vote.
In a scathing dissent, Democratic Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and
Michael Copps derided the majority opinion as a “blistering rebuke of the
rights of Spanish speakers in our country.”
“The company is aptly named Univision–“one vision”–because that’s just about
all we’re going to get from Spanish-language media from now on,” they wrote.
“Whether Spanish speakers watch broadcast or cable TV, listen to the radio,
buy CDs, or surf the Internet, they will face the monolithic Univision–
reach no other media company comes close to attaining with its respective
Phillip Verveer, a telecommunications and anti-trust attorney that
represented the other Spanish-language outlets opposed to the merger told
Capitol Weekly that if one considers Spanish-language media to be a defined
market–which many media experts do–then Univision “would have an awfully
substantial share of that market, the kind of share a anti-trust analysis
would consider a monopoly.”
Monopoly-like or not, Univision is incredibly popular among U.S.
Hispanics. A 2003 survey by Bendixen and Associates, one of the nation’s
leading polling firms, found that more Latino immigrants had a favorable
view of Univision than a dozen other institutions, including the U.S.
Government and the Catholic Church. Univision, with 88 percent total
positives, outpolled the Catholic Church by a whooping 23 percent.
Wall Street investors, however, have not been as exuberant.
“Wall Street is skeptical about the buying power of the typical consumer
from that audience, right or wrong,” said Philip Remek, a media analyst at
Guzman and Co., a Miami-based investment firm.
Though Univision’s tight grip on the Spanish-language audience, according to
Remek, “is going to continue indefinitely,” only 40 percent, or 170 of the
nation’s top 300 advertisers buy spots on Univision.
“Audience growth hasn’t been converted to revenue,” said Remek, whose firm
lists the stock in the “underperform” category.
Still, in 2004, Univision’s net revenues rose 36 percent to $1.8 billion, at
a time when other national networks struggled. Despite its size and relative
success, Univision executives are almost never quoted in the media.
In fact, the company is so press-averse that even the vice president of
public relations has to get approval from top-ranking executives to go
on-the-record with reporters.
But despite its relative silence in the press, Univision has become too
to be ignored. In 2004, the Miller Brewing Company struck a $100 million,
three-year deal with Univision. And this year political advertising for the
California special election on Univision reached record highs.
And with Hispanics the fastest-growing segment of the population in
California, those figures are only expected to rise, even as more and more
Latinos assimilate and become English-language dominant.
“A lot of people who watch Univision speak English,” says Remek.
“Second-generation people watch Univision for cultural reasons. They may
watch a detective drama in English, but they watch Univision for their
favorite novela, or Cristina or Sabado Gigante,” two of the station’s
longest running and most popular programs.
Or as Carlos Rodriguez of Latino Opinions put it, “They have a very loyal
audience. That no matter what else they watch. No matter who they get their
information from, they inevitably go back to Univision to confirm that
information–[they] go back to make sure what they saw somewhere else was
Next week, in part two, Capitol Weekly will analyze the role Univision plays
in California politics.