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The rise of Spanish-language programming on DTV

April 23: Since television’s Congressionally-mandated evolution from an analog to a digital format began last June, television broadcasters have increasingly offered Spanish-language programming on their digital subchannels.

The conversion to digital created “additional space on the dial to broadcast programming,” explained Julie Holley, managing editor of television content at Vocus Media Research Group. Some stations opted to use the subchannels to provide weather and traffic updates, while others offered broadcast reruns of older, syndicated TV shows, she noted. “Still others use them to broadcast live, breaking news or to try out new programs they don’t want to risk airing on their main station.” Then there are those that choose to fill subchannel space with Spanish-language programs.

“Spanish-language television networks are taking advantage by working with already-existing stations, helping them to fill the additional space created with their programming. Two of the most active in this endeavor are Estrella TV and Mexicanal, both of which are trying to woo viewers away from longtime power players Univision and Telemundo,” Holley said.

According to a report provided by media consulting firm BIA/Kelsey’s chief strategy officer Rick Ducey, 164 out of 1,476 multicast channels offered are affiliated with Spanish-language or bilingual networks. “For this growing segment, the ability to be served by free over-the-air DTV multicast services is a significant benefit of the DTV transition,” he wrote.

The decision to premiere Estrella TV on Portland, Oregon-based KGW-TV’s 8.2 digital subchannel back in September was an easy one given the growing Hispanic population, noted Ken Freedman, KGW director of sales and marketing. Estrella can now be seen in 73 percent of the Portland-Vancouver-Salem designated market area (800,000 homes), he said in an e-mail interview. “According to the last census, nearly 8 percent of the region is Hispanic households, so some 65,000 to 70,000 homes would be interested in this programming,” he said.

Other stations have also taken to launching Spanish-language programming on their digital substations. WSVN-TV in Miami launched Estrella on channel 7.2; Hearst’s ABC affiliate WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach, Fla., launched Estrella on 25.2 in August; and New York’s WPIX-TV launched Estrella on channel 11.2 in October. The most recent in this trend is Cox’s WFTV-TV, which partnered with WAWA-TV and is expected to air GenTV’s Spanish-language programming on the 9.3 subchannel by June. As the outlet for programming grows, so do the possibilities for PR professionals pitching Spanish-language networks.

Holley predicts this will continue to be a trend as more cities across the country grow in this demographic. “Digital subchannels are a good option because they do not require a network to bear the burden of licensing and paying for the creation of a new station in a given area where they want to expand,” she said. According to a report from The Center for Media Research, a survey from Hispanic advertising agency Orci shows that the Hispanic TV audience is growing faster than the TV audience for the entire population – showing a continued increase of Hispanic TV homes at 2.3 percent compared to U.S. total TV homes at 0.3 percent for the 2009-2010 TV season.

The transition to digital technology has allowed KGW and other broadcasters to provide programming to a community that Freedman said was previously underserved. Now their primary signal can go out in high definition, while the extra space allows them to service the Spanish-language population. “Our job as broadcasters is to meet the needs of our community,” he said. “Our offering Estrella would not have been possible if not for the mandated digital transition.”

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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