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ABC News President Ben Sherwood (from left), Univision Networks President Cesar Conde and Univision News President Isaac Lee announced the joint venture between ABC News and Univision on May 7 in New York.
Univision has been operating for five decades and already commands about three-quarters of the Spanish-speaking television audience in the U.S. across its various broadcast and cable channels, according to Nielsen ratings estimates. On many nights, its ratings beat the major English-language networks. Now it is joining with ABC News to map out an entirely new network to reach Hispanics who prefer English.
"This is a fascinating point in our country's history right now," says Cesar Conde, president of Univision networks.
NBC News is attempting to collaborate as never before with its sister Spanish-language network Telemundo. MundoFox, a Spanish-language network born of a partnership between News Corp.'s Fox International Channels and a Colombian network, made its formal debut this week.
But this joint venture between Univision and ABC is in some ways the most notable effort by any major media outlet to try to capture a greater Hispanic audience at a time when the Hispanic share of the U.S. population is markedly growing.
"Increasingly, we're seeing the influence of Latinos across all fronts in America, from cultural to social, political and of course economic fronts. And that has a number of repercussions," Conde says. "One of the areas that has been underserved is providing a culturally relevant offering for Hispanics in English to complement everything that we're doing on the Spanish-language front."
Conde calls this effort uncharted territory, and ABC decidedly wants to stake its claim. That means a shift in the network's newsroom culture. One notable piece of evidence of that change: Starting this month, all ABC News staffers are being offered free Spanish lessons.
ABC News President Ben Sherwood met with Conde and other Univision executives early last year in anticipation of the 2012 presidential campaign coverage. The partnership started modestly.
"They wondered if Jorge Ramos could participate in some way in an ABC News debate," Sherwood recalls. "The answer to that was, 'Sure, no problem.' "
Bigger plans soon beckoned. Sherwood notes Univision's announcements that it intended to create a series of cable networks, involving news, entertainment and sport, to complement its cluster of existing channels.
"Our idea was let's build the channel of the future aimed at English-speaking Hispanics with culturally relevant programming," Sherwood says. "It's as simple — and as bold — as that."
Officials at the two networks say the formula, still evolving, will incorporate lifestyle programming as well, focusing on entertainment, food, health, music and pop culture.
While Univision executives and journalists laud ABC's traditions in news, Sherwood notes that his network brings an additional element: negotiating muscle. Disney, ABC's parent company, can leverage the indispensability of some of its other cable properties, such as the ESPN networks, to convince cable and satellite television providers to carry the new station.
Millions of Americans rely on Univision anchor Jorge Ramos to tell them about the news, but his children aren't among them. Like many Latinos who've grown up in the U.S., they get their news in English.
For ABC, the appeal of working closely with Univision on this project is readily apparent. All three legacy broadcast network divisions lag in attracting Hispanic viewers for their newscasts, even as roughly one in six Americans is Latino. That share is expected to rise, as Hispanics accounted for more than half of the growth of the U.S. population between 2000 and 2010.
Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, says as immigration to the U.S. from Mexico has slowed, most of that growth occurred among American-born Latinos. They are comfortable moving between media in both languages, he says, or may largely speak English when among friends.
"I think that's what the Univision/ABC News [network] is looking to exploit," Lopez says.
The logic is strong, but the strategy carries its own risks. English-speaking Latinos turn to the same news sources as everyone else, such as existing cable news stations, big newspapers, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook.
But Spanish-language outlets give greater coverage to stories that affect Latinos directly, including voting rights, immigration and developments in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Lopez points to a 2010 study by the Pew Hispanic Center that found Hispanics who relied on English-language media outlets did not understand nearly as much about that year's census as those who depended on Spanish-language news organizations. English-speaking Latinos, for example, were less likely to realize that authorities could not use the answers provided in the census questionnaires to deport people who are in this country illegally, Lopez said.
"They identify as Hispanic. They call themselves Hispanic," Lopez says, "but they aren't necessarily getting the same sort of news coverage directed specifically to them about being Latino, or about what it means to be Latino."
He says the evidence just doesn't exist yet to prove that the ABC/Univision channel will be a winning concept. The network is expected to first appear on the air sometime in the second quarter of next year. The accompanying English-language website, however, is supposed to make its first appearance sometime this fall.
Ramos says people who prefer English will encounter fuller coverage of issues that affect them in the language in which they're most comfortable.
"Those voices that we hear on a daily basis in Spanish are not being heard in English," Ramos says. "It's time that that starts to happen."