FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

There are 5.8 million Latinos in the Los Angeles television market, representing 38 percent of the population and with a buying power in excess of $50 billion.

Needless to say, the television industry and its advertisers would dearly love to reach that audience, especially bilingual and English-dominant viewers. The question is how and to what degree.

Several forays by English-language stations in recent weeks represent the first concerted effort to tap into the Latino market, which up to now has been dominated by Spanish-language station KMEX-TV Channel 34. During the May sweeps, KMEX was L.A.'s No. 1 station in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic from sign-on to sign-off. Meanwhile, viewership among English-language stations generally has been declining.

Among the examples of Latino-related programming:

? KCBS-TV Channel 2 is trying out a seven-week late-night Latino-themed entertainment show in English.

? KTLA-TV Channel 5 has hired a Latina sportscaster with a noticeable Spanish accent.

? Chevron Corp. recently aired a Spanish-language commercial on several English-language stations in Los Angeles.

"It's a way to draw viewers and to tap into the huge Spanish-language pool," said Ken Lindner, a talent agent who represents local newscasters. "The competition is so fierce, and viewership is going down at the broadcast stations. It is an advantage when TV stations reflect their viewership."

But more to the point, there is just too much money to be made from L.A.'s ever-increasing Latino market.

KCBS estimates the buying power of the Latino community at $52 billion. Other studies place Latino buying power in L.A. at $71 billion.

Nielsen Media Research estimates that while Latinos currently make up 38 percent of the Los Angeles TV market, they will make up 50 percent within the next 12 years. Nielsen's 1999 survey put the average Latino household income in Los Angeles at $47,866.

"Here is one golden, juicy market, and it is coming in like waves," said Anita Santiago, president of Anita Santiago Advertising.

The main reason broadcasters are having so much trouble getting a handle on this audience is language. No one is entirely certain how many Latinos prefer English-language TV to Spanish-language TV, though Nielsen and other organizations are stepping up their efforts to survey Latino viewing preferences. One such survey, by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, showed that 74 percent of Latinos watch television in English.

But without a fully accurate picture of the size and programming preferences of a bilingual audience, it is a market difficult to target. According to Nielsen, 58 percent of Latinos in L.A. primarily use Spanish at home, while 27 percent prefer English. The other 15 percent are completely bilingual, with no language preference.

"There is no clear-cut box," Santiago said. "Some people are more comfortable with Spanish, and some more comfortable with English. Some like to switch back and forth between English- and Spanish-language stations."

While Latino marketers applaud the efforts of the English-language stations, many believe that these early steps are either too tentative or too bold to succeed.

A case in point was the Chevron commercial. The San Francisco-based oil company took a spot that originally aired on the Spanish-language networks, added English subtitles, and aired it on mainstream L.A. stations in late May. The result was a number of angry letters from viewers, some of whom threatened to cut up their Chevron credit cards.

Though Chevron had been planning to run the commercial in other Latino markets like San Diego and Houston, the fate of the ad is now uncertain.

"You have to be careful," said Ray Durazo, president of Durazo Communications, a Los Angeles-based Latino marketing agency. "You have to approach this thing intelligently and define what are your goals and objectives. There is a potential for a backlash from people who think that if you are an American, you speak English. Bilinguals threaten them. As a marketer, you have to take this into consideration."

As for KCBS's foray into Latino-themed programming, the station plans to air five and a half hours a week produced by Si TV, a 2-year-old L.A. production company that creates English-language shows with Latino stars for such networks as Showtime, Nickelodeon and Galavision. On weeknights, the station will air a one-hour show starting at 1:30 a.m., with a half-hour Si TV show airing on Sundays at 1 a.m.

Elements of the new show will come from Si TV's cache of original series and specials, like "Caf & #233; Ole with Giselle Fernandez," a former NBC News correspondent and anchor of "Access Hollywood." Another is a standup comedy showcase hosted by Carlos Mencia.

Some ad executives say the time slot is doomed that KCBS has failed to take into account that Latinos, like other viewers, are usually not up at that hour.

"I have seen a lot of tests that were designed to fail," said Hector Orci, co-chairman of La Agencia de Orci & Asociados, a Los Angeles advertising agency. "This has the smell of it."

Jeff Valdez, co-chairman of Si TV, disagrees, noting that, "Change happens one step at a time."

Valdez said the show will look to attract Latino viewers and advertisers hoping to reach the bilingual audience. Sponsors will have the option of submitting commercials in either English or Spanish.

"This speaks to a market that is noticing there is an untapped audience that likes to see images of itself," he said.

Rozanne Englehart, KCBS' programming director who bought Si TV's show, notes that the test comes at a time of year when viewing patterns are the highest for the Latino community. Moreover, she said, the program follows "The Craig Kilborn Show," which appeals to younger viewers.

"This is a test and we are hopeful about its success," she said. "We are already discussing better time periods."

Valdez said he and the station also have begun discussing a possible daytime show. Meanwhile, Si TV is gearing up to launch an English-language, Latino-themed cable network in June 2000.

While all the local stations have Latino newscasters, KTLA broke new ground recently by hiring Claudia Trejos, a Colombia native formerly with Spanish-language independent KWHY-TV Channel 22. Trejos will serve as a sports reporter and weekend anchor even though she has never before worked in English and has a distinct Spanish accent. The other Latino newscasters in L.A. speak fluent, accent-free English.

Trejos will be teamed with Tony Hernandez, giving KTLA the only all-Latino sportscasting team on an English-language station.

"If you are a smart businessman, you are going to have to embrace all cultures and religions," said Jeff Wald, KTLA's news director.

Santiago says these experiments, while tentative, may eventually bear fruit. "Latinos are known for their product loyalty," she said. "There is loyalty when you are the first one to take the risk."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.