By Steve McClellan
NEW YORK - With double-digit ratings growth this season, Spanish-language broadcaster Univision is off to a better start than any of the major English-language networks, and the future is promising as well.
The new census is expected to show a nearly 45% increase in the number of Hispanic Americans since 2000, to a total of 50 million. This couples with continuing audience erosion at the major networks and Univision's recent deal with Mexican programmer Grupo Televisa, which locks up the source of much the network's popular programming for at least another decade.
Just a few years ago, the notion of Univision catching and surpassing them would have had mainstream network executives rolling with laughter. They're not laughing now.
And they're not talking publicly about it either: When asked to comment, the Big Four nets refused. But a couple of executives talked on background and indicated that they take the threat from Univision seriously.
"They're already No. 5," as one put it, having eclipsed the CW.
One top network researcher's calculations concluded that Univision could surpass the Anglo networks in seven years, even without the boost provided by growth in the Hispanic population.
Ad buyers also believe that Univision has a good shot at topping the Anglo networks on its stated schedule.
"It's totally conceivable that in three to five years they would be, regardless of language, the No. 1 broadcast network," said Steven Wolfe Pereira, senior vp and managing director at MV42, a unit of Publicis Groupe's media agency MediaVest.
Brad Adgate, senior vp and director of research at Horizon Media, confirmed that Univision is already making strides.
"I could see them this season starting to win a couple of nights in adults 18-49," Adgate said. "On Friday nights, they're close to being No. 1 already."
Univision CEO Joe Uva is confident that audience growth will drive ad growth in the future. He noted that 55 new brands signed on during this year's "upfront" advertising market, where the network achieved 14% organic growth -- compared with 3% organic growth for the Big Four. And he said tens of millions of that growth were dollars shifted from English-language budgets, a trend he believes will accelerate.
"If you're a marketer today, it's almost impossible to achieve sustainable long-term growth if you don't spend against this consumer," he said.
That said, about two-thirds of TV advertisers have avoided Spanish-language TV up to now, according to buyers.
But when the census is released next year showing the huge jump in the Hispanic population, "corporate boards will pay attention," Wolfe Pereira said. "It will be a real wake-up call."
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