Latinos are finding that networks such as Univision and Telemundo are getting savvier, stronger and more sophisticated. Univision is now the No. 4 broadcast network for viewers 18-34 and 18-49 — the age groups most targeted by advertisers – outperforming both ABC and the CW. Among younger viewers, its telenovela La Tempestad outdrew the heavily hyped season premiere of The Michael J. Fox Show.
At the same time, network TV continues to overlook the United States’ largest minority group. Last season only 4 percent of characters on prime-time network TV were Latinos, compared to 17 percent in the population as a whole — and those roles were typically gang members or sexpots.
Benjamin Bratt, an actor of Peruvian descent who shot to stardom through Law & Order, said a big part of the problem is that network decision makers don’t understand the Hispanic market.
“They’re generally middle-aged, white, privileged men who know very little about the Latino American experience,” Bratt said.
Last year much press was dedicated to Good Morning, America’s status as the nation’s No. 1 morning show, but in viewership terms it actually had zero growth while rival Today slipped.
The real morning success story belongs to Univision’s Despierta America, which averaged 839,000 viewers, up 21 percent from a year earlier. The network’s flagship news show, Noticiero Univision, also enjoyed a terrific season, drawing 15 percent more adults ages 18-34 than the CBS Evening News.
Rival network Telemundo is also on the rise. It recently had its best August ever, reaching 1.3 million viewers, up 8 percent from last year.
Behind those numbers is an even bigger number: There are more than 52 million Hispanics in the United States, a figure that the Census Bureau expects to hit 133 million by 2050.
Lots of people means lots of purchasing power. While ad spending on network TV was down 5.2 percent in the first quarter of 2013, Spanish-language channels saw a 13.5 percent increase from 2012, according to the consulting firm Kantar Media.
But numbers only begin to explain the shift. The quality of Latino programming is also on the rise.
Once a sea of trashy soap operas and outrageous game shows, Spanish-language TV now rivals traditional networks in depth and scope. There are Latin versions of everything from The Voice to the Discovery Channel. La Reina del Sur, Telemundo’s hit series about a woman running a drug cartel, is closer in spirit to Breaking Bad than Days of Our Lives.
“It used to be enough just for everything to be in Spanish,” said Ruben Mendiola, vice president and general manager for Comcast’s multicultural video services. “But now we have sophisticated programming that can cater to all Latinos.”
What’s harder to find: Hispanics on mainstream television.
Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara may be TV’s highest-paid actress, but she got the title by playing a hot-headed beauty with a broken accent.
Actor Luis Antonio Ramos left Los Angeles five years ago after decades of being typecast. “I played bad guys in every show on every network. It was just sucking away my soul,” said Ramos, who appeared on ABC’s recently canceled drama Lucky 7.
There are signs that network TV is starting to realize they’re squandering a great opportunity. Several shows premiering in midseason will have juicy roles for Latinas, including Killer Women, based on a Spanish telenovela. Eva Longoria is in talks to star in a new law series, Vega v. Vega, and her production company is working on Trust, an hour-long soap based on a Colombian drama.
One of the highlights of this still young season: Fox’s new action comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine features two Hispanic female characters.
“It never happens that you look over and there’s another Latina actress on the same show with you,” said Stephanie Beatriz, who plays detective Rosa Diaz on the Fox sitcom. “Plus, we’re not doing accents or anything spicy.”