Noches con Telenovelas
What’s behind Univision’s remarkable success?
Univision isn’t all heaving bosoms and star-crossed lovers, though. A first-class news operation cements the company’s position as, in Conde’s words, the community’s go-to source for “high-quality, culturally relevant content.” The nightly newscast, co-anchored by María Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos (who combines the gravitas of Tom Brokaw with the silver-fox good looks of Anderson Cooper), devotes more time to foreign news than its English-language counterparts, a reflection of the more than 20 Spanish-speaking nations where American Latinos have their roots. Ramos also anchors a Sunday morning talk show, Al Punto, which, like Sábado Gigante, shoehorns several formats into one package. The most recent edition featured Meet the Press-style talking-head segments (one interview, with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, was conducted in English and simultaneously translated into Spanish); a journalists’ roundtable, in which the topics ranged from whether the Democratic Party takes Latino voters for granted to forthcoming elections in Nicaragua and Guatemala; and a 60 Minutes-like profile of a recording artist who is moving to the United States after being threatened by Mexican drug cartels.
Of course, Univision doesn’t face a ton of competition for Spanish-speaking viewers. My cable provider offers hundreds of channels, but only a handful are hispanohablante, including two—Telefutura and cable network Galavision—that are also owned by Univision. (The company also controls 62 local TV stations, 70 radio stations, and, in Univision.com, the No. 1 Spanish-language digital property in the United States.) The audience for the NBC-owned Telemundo is growing, but it still attracts considerably fewer viewers than Univision. (During prime-time viewing hours, the three Univision networks have a 72 percent share of the 18-to-49-year-olds watching Spanish-language television; Telemundo attracts 20 percent.) For now, Telemundo tends to score with big splashes like movies and sporting events rather than with standard programming; it recently outbid Univision for the rights to air the 2018 and 2022 World Cup soccer tournaments.
Between the telenovela-heavy prime-time schedule and weekend shows like the wildly popular Mira Quién Baila (a Dancing With the Stars analogue), Univision skews toward the double-equis set. Soccer matches and Sunday sports staple República Deportiva are the network’s only male-focused programming (though the abundance of skimpily dressed women on just about every Univision show leads one to believe that plenty of guys are watching). On Oct. 31, the company addressed this apparent gender imbalance by introducing a new late-night show, Noche de Perros (the official translation is Guys’ Night Out), which has the tagline “for men only.” It’s a noxious mélange of sexual harassment, single entendres, and macho posturing, but it’s not stinking up the flagship network with its taint of testosterone—it’s tucked away on Telefutura.
Although Univision is committed to female viewers and to telenovelas—last December, Mexican novela powerhouse Televisa made a $1.2 billion investment in the company—they’re open to new formats. A few years ago, according to Conde, they decided that they “needed to make a bet” on reality—a wager that has worked out well. He said shows like Nuestra Belleza Latina and Protagonistas (currently running every night at 10 p.m. Eastern) have been “very successful” for Univision. Indeed, the network’s ratings win on Sept. 7 was driven by the three-hour finale of kiddie talent competition Pequeños Gigantes.
Univision plans to launch several new networks next year—including sports, news, and all-novela channels. Given the explosive demographic growth of Hispanics in the United States—they currently make up 16 percent of the U.S. population and are expected to hit 30 percent by 2050—it’s likely that ratings for the Univision empire will continue to grow. Give it a few decades, and we’ll all be watching Sábado Gigante.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.