Sorpresa! joins race for Latino youth

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TV executives are hoping young Hispanic eyes will lead to big viewership and ad support.

Spanish-language network Sorpresa! (meaning "Surprise!") debuted in March in 400,000 cable households. Targeting Hispanic youths aged 3 to 14 with mostly Spanish-language programming, Sorpresa! joins several other Spanish- and English-language networks that have marketed to-or simply found favor with-young Latinos.

Ask Hispanic elementary-school age kids their favorite networks and general-market staples like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel are mentioned. Many of the shows feature multicultural themes or characters, which helps the cable networks draw a diverse audience.

Now, programmers are looking to provide more in-language content. And based on sheer numbers, their intentions seem well-placed. The U.S. Hispanic population ballooned by 57.9% between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nestled within that figure was the growth of the Hispanic youth population. Of the 35.3 million Hispanics in the U.S. as of the 2000 Census, 10.5 million were 14 years of age or younger. And that group is expected to grow by more than 5.4% between 2003 and 2005 while the total population of 14-year-olds and younger remains flat.

The numbers seem to support Sorpresa!'s mandate to reach younger viewers. The 24-hour network features cartoons, game and talk shows, and variety programs. Mornings are slotted for preschoolers, with late afternoons and evenings carrying movies and sports programming for viewers up to 21.

Firestone Communications, NewYork, created Sorpresa! after acquiring Hispanic Television Network's production studios, uplink facilities and carriage agreements with 350 systems from bankruptcy creditors.

spectrum of viewers

The challenge is providing content that will find favor from a spectrum of viewers, which in a Hispanic household could mean the parents as well as children, says Firestone President Michael Fletcher. "It targets kids, but parents also get into it."

Sorpresa! is not alone. Viacom's MTV Espanol offers all Spanish-language content for viewers typically aged 12 to 24 years, says Eric Sherman, VP-digital television for MTV and VH1. Telemundo's Mun2 network targets bilingual third- or fourth-generation U.S. Hispanic viewers as young as 14 with English-language content. Satellite station Si' TV will slate English-language fare for young Hispanics.

During the recent upfront TV selling market, Telefutura, a network operated by General Electric Co.'s Univision Communications, debuted a lineup with Spanish-language content for kids. Those shows, though, will be tucked into early morning and weekend dayparts.

Networks targeting Spanish-speaking youths could find a mixed bag of results, says Peter Roslow, president of Roslow Research Group. As preschoolers, Hispanics tend to be more Spanish-dominant. Yet as they age, peer influence often makes English the language of choice outside the home-as well as with the TV programming they watch, he says.

Monica Gadsby, managing director at Tapestry, the multicultural arm of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group, Chicago, cites as popular English fare among Hispanic kids Nick's "Dora the Explorer" and "The Brothers Garcia."

English-language networks come up frequently in discussions of media used to reach young Hispanics. The balancing act for programmers will come in serving up content suitable to older youths who have a choice between English- and Spanish-language programs, Mr. Roslow says.

more options

The options could bode well for marketers and their multicultural agencies, says Luis Miguel Messianu, chief creative officer with Del Rivero Messianu DDB, Coral Gables, Fla. The Omnicom Group-backed agency has handled U.S. Hispanic efforts for McDonald's Corp. since 1994, and continually seeks ways to target young Latinos, he says. An in-language network might allow for more directed ads targeting children. "It's all about options for marketers," he says.

Sorpresa!'s real challenge will come when Hispanic kids turn about 6, an age at which they've traditionally turned to English-language programming, Ms. Gadsby says.

"The difficulty is in making it hip and creating a buzz about it so kids are talking about it out of the home so it becomes more mainstream," she says. "The competition is there with Disney and Nick."

Sorpresa! has started selling ad time and is focusing on categories such as beverages, package goods and retailers; the network's executives will welcome commercials in either language. While studies show Spanish-language ads score better in recall than their English-language counterparts, Mr. Fletcher isn't worried. "The kids are bilingual," he says, "so they'll get the message."

Today's Hispanic children are highly acculturated, meaning equally comfortable in either language or culture. Yet their families often place a high value on Spanish-language programming as a way to create a family experience and a connection back to the family's Latino history, he says.

Conversely, when it debuts on EchoStar satellite TV toward yearend, Si' TV will take a different approach, bringing culturally specific, English-language content to Hispanic youth aged from 24 down to around 12, says Jeff Valdez, co-chairman of the network.

"Not bilingual, not Spanglish," says Mr. Valdez. "It's not about language, it's about culture. That's the sweet spot for growth."

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