TV still at a loss for words for Latinos

Census data on Latinos paint the kind of portrait bound to keep marketers salivating and saucer-eyed — a young, fast-growing demographic segment whose burgeoning influence and buying power are especially profound in such population-rich states as California and Texas.

Attempting to translate that data into dollars, however, poses a considerable challenge, largely because Hispanics’ mix of cultural and language differences defy easy classification and knee-jerk approaches to reaching them. So while English-language media outlets understandably covet this audience, most appear pretty well clueless about how to address it.

This was a TV season, after all, that began with a trio of sitcoms featuring Latino leads. Fast-forward to spring and ABC’s “George Lopez” is the last hombre standing, with Fox’s “Luis” scrapped and the WB having quickly said adios to “Greetings From Tucson.”

Last week saw the release of two unrelated studies that spoke to this issue in disparate ways, and while neither offered answers, both raised some intriguing questions.

The most expansive findings came from a Pew Hispanic Center survey of Latino news-consumption habits, conducted among a nationally representative sample during a monthlong period ending in March. Perhaps most interesting, the results highlighted how freely Hispanics dabble in Spanish- and English-language media, with 44% stating a preference for both.

Presenting the study at an April 19 conference at USC, Pew Hispanic Center director Robert Suro said the response reflects viewers who watch “with clicker in hand, going between two cultures … with great ease.”

Suro proceeded to call attempts to monitor Latino media patterns “nutty,” to use a not-so-academic term, “because everything’s moving” — particularly when it comes to extrapolating ahead due to the uncertainty surrounding immigration patterns.

“These people are all over the place,” he said. “The level of switching back and forth is extraordinary.”

What came through loud and clear, though, is that Latinos have a unique relationship with media because what they watch and read plays such a vital role in their assimilation into U.S. society as well as the desire to retain a connection with their native culture.

Spanish-language media have astutely positioned themselves in this regard, serving as a resource to help Latinos navigate their way in the U.S. as well as a font of news about events in Latin America.

By contrast, just over half of Latinos who receive most of their news in English, and 44% overall, expressed concern that English-lingo media contribute to negative perceptions of Latinos.

In weighing the Pew survey, Felix Gutierrez, a visiting professor in the journalism school of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, concluded, “We are bilingual, we are bicultural, and if your media is not, you’re going to be by yourself.”

The Pew research didn’t incorporate entertainment programming, which might be tackled in the future. Yet consider this appraisal of news in the context of a report on primetime diversity released last week by the child advocacy organization Children Now. The findings registered a threefold increase in “opening credit” roles for Latinos, with more than half of primetime programs now boasting at least one Latino character.

Although those gains reflect a clear desire to recognize Latinos in primetime, however, those numerical measurements don’t tell the entire story.

For starters, Latinos remain underrepresented relative to real-life population percentages, as are most minorities other than African-Americans. Perhaps more significantly, Children Now concluded Latinos are disproportionately likely to be depicted as criminals or in menial jobs, such as a maid or gardener. (There was one of each, notably, in the WB’s spring sitcom “The Help,” which endeavored to offend everybody, including those with a desire to laugh.)

Even when Latinos aren’t playing servants or drug dealers — as they did in NBC’s compelling crime drama “Kingpin” — these figures, juxtaposed with the question of stereotyping raised by the Pew center, augur that Frito Bandito comedy images alone aren’t going to cut it with Latino viewers.

Admittedly, such surveys need to be consumed with a grain of salt, and it’s only fair to say that news and entertainment programming tend to obsessively focus on crime and criminals regardless of race or ethnicity. In addition, more serious skeins about Latinos, from PBS’ “American Family” to Showtime’s “Resurrection Blvd.,” haven’t exactly been ratings grabbers.

That said, a pair of unavoidable observations sprang from this brush with academia, the first being that English-language media outlets slow to recognize the Latino audience do so at their own peril. The second strongly suggests that assimilation notwithstanding, Latino media possess a bright future because of their unique bond with viewers — one reason NBC is funneling resources into Telemundo.

Amorphous as it all might seem, Gutierrez summed up the Latino market this way: “People pay attention to the media that pay attention to them.”

Clearly, the media wants to pay attention to Latinos, and vice versa. The trick will be how much gets lost in translation.

* * *

CITIZEN KOPPEL: Somewhat overlooked amid ABC’s biennial game of managerial musical chairs was a speech the same day by another network employee. And while many in the Hollywood crowd were doubtless scanning their Blackberrys for news about the network’s latest entertainment division shakeup, I can only hope a few absorbed what Ted Koppel had to say.

It’s worth remembering that the “Nightline” host nearly lost his latenight perch two years ago when ABC decided David Letterman was too juicy a profit-yielding prize to pass up, only to be played like a marlin by the comic’s reps, who proceeded to fatten his deal at CBS.

That was shocking to those who consider Koppel this generation’s Murrow or Cronkite, as I do. So it was appropriate that the statesmanlike anchor quoted the former, with Disney president Robert Iger as a captive listener, as he expounded on the danger of allowing profit motives to transform news into entertainment.

Granted, that horse fled the barn so long ago that sounding alarms now might seem fruitless. Still, Koppel came up with another farm metaphor, pointing out that journalism is about more than going “Live!” simply because the technology exists and rather “requires context and prioritizing … separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Koppel stressed that he understands news is expected to earn its keep. “I’m not operating under the illusion that I’m working for the United Way,” he said. Nevertheless, when “Dateline NBC” schedules a half-dozen primetime hours devoted to “The Apprentice,” “Friends” and “Frasier” in the midst of an election countdown and the combustible situation in Iraq, lines are being crossed, and something is clearly out of whack.

Perhaps the most striking exchange occurred when a student attending the event wondered what to do if asked or ordered to report a story that compromises journalistic integrity.

“Quit,” Koppel said bluntly. “If you start doing those things … you’re never going to be able to get out from under it.”

That’s certainly a laudable, even noble sentiment. The main problem is that once everyone with good reason to take a walk marches out the door, will anyone be left to turn out the lights?

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