Can American TV industry reach out to Hispanic viewers before the numbers bury them?
In crunching numbers for a freelance article, I noted a sobering, if long-held statistic: Hispanics are the most underrepresented group on television, with just 4 percent of speaking roles in the current TV season featuring such characters.
Bear in mind: according to the latest Census figures, non-white Hispanics are now 17 percent of the population, at 53 million people. By 2019, some demographers predict no ethnic group will be a majority among the nation's youth aged under 18; turning America's young people into a true melting pot, fueled by growth among Hispanic families.
So why is TV so slow to reflect these trends? At a time when NBC seems on the verge of keeling over and the network TV model is besieged from all sides, the one thing TV networks seemingly haven't tried is shows appealing to the largest group of non-white viewers in the United States.
But that may soon change. ABC on Monday announced plans for a news and lifestyle channel centered on English-speaking Latinos and developed in partnership with Spanish-language TV giant Univision, called Fusion. Already, five huge cable systems have agreed to carry the channel, planned to debut in the second half of 2013: Cablevision, Charter, Cox, AT&T U-verse and Google Fiber.
NBC is also building bridges with its in-house Spanish-language network, Telemundo, in Miami. But such partnerships likely won't create programming for their mothership channels for years.
Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, told me of two different shows under development by two different networks; one is a comedy based on John Leguizamo's life, showing his struggle to raise his kids, raised in wealth, with the same values he leaned growing up as a poor kid in the Bronx. Another, is a drama featuring two white doctors working in an emergency room serving San Antonio, where Hispanics are 63 percent of the city's population.
Sanchez hadn't seen either show, but his concerns were immediate. "(Leguizamo's show) will have tremendous authenticity and resonate with lots of individuals; especially people of color who have gone on that journey," he said. "In contrast, (the other show's) narrative will be told through the eyes of Anglo doctors and you'll have a slew of gunshot victims, other victims in the Latino roles...On the one hand, you have a progressive approach, on the other, you have a stereotypical approach."
What he didn't note: In Leguizamo's show, you also have a Hispanic man telling his own story. In the other pilot, the stories are filtered through the sensibilities of the non-Hispanic doctors.
I see similar strains in the effort by Fox News to reach Latino audiences, creating the English-language Fox News Latino site in 2010. Fox News architect Roger Ailes told the New Republic he sees that audience as a "tremendous business opportunity," despite the harsh, anti-immigration rhetoric of some anchors and the fact that Fox Business Network hired one of TV's most vocal anti-immigration personalities, Lou Dobbs, when he left CNN.
In an age of increasing digital disruption and falling audiences, it will be interesting to see how various corners of the TV industry turn from ignoring and stereotyping Hispanics to courting them.
Whether or not it works may depend on how long viewers' memories last and how effective the efforts really are.