Media players zero in on niche programming

On the heels of U.S. Census reports underscoring the growing diversity of the American viewing public, major media players are starting to zero in on the potential in programming to ethnic niches.

Fox on Monday announced the formation of Fox Hispanic Media, a unit to house cablers targeting bilingual Latino viewers. Also Monday, Comcast cemented a specific timetable for launching the first three minority-owned channels that the cable giant committed to as part of securing federal approval for its merger with NBCUniversal.

And Bounce TV, an Atlanta-based startup digital channel whose backers include Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III, unveiled a raft of program licensing deals, including pacts with NBCU and Sony Pictures TV, in preparation for the fall bow of its network targeting African-American auds in the 25-54 demo.

Fox’s push to harness the potential of the expanding Hispanic demo is spearheaded by Fox Intl. Channels prexy Hernan Lopez, a rising star at News Corp. Based in L.A., Fox Hispanic Media, a division of Fox Intl. Channels and Fox Global Networks, will comprise three Spanish-lingo cable outlets: sports channel Fox Deportes, femme lifestyle channel Utilisima and the family-friendly Nat Geo Mundo. The last channel is set to bow in July and willfeature original Spanish-lingo unscripted programming on nature, culture and historical topics, in keeping with the Nat Geo brand.

Fox Hispanic Media execs will handle ad sales for the three channels — the newly minted division will even hold its own upfront event on May 17 at the New York Public Library. The move reflects a shift in the mindset within News Corp. on how to target a growing population that encompasses a wide range of language preferences, ages and viewing habits.

“We felt there was opportunity for our company in targeting a group that’s not only increasing in numbers but also shifting culturally,” Lopez told Variety. “We had in the past targeted male Hispanics with Fox Deportes, and we reach English-dominant viewers with programming on Fox and our other networks. But we have not until now created a collection of cable channels that mine the increasingly bicultural new Latino demographic.”

A U.S. Census report issued late last month confirmed that the U.S. Hispanic population ballooned 43% during the past decade, surpassing 50 million. Hispanics accounted for more than half of the overall population growth of 27.3 million between 2000 and 2010, and the Hispanic population is on average younger than other ethnic groups. By 2050, Latinos could amount to as much as one-third of the U.S. population. The tagline for Fox Hispanic Media is telling: “Latino entertainment with an American attitude.”

Lopez said Fox has been working on assembling the group for about six months. Given the population stats, it hasn’t been a tough sell inside News Corp.

NBCUniversal is focusing on the same territory with its Mun 2 cabler, an offshoot of Spanish-lingo broadcaster Telemundo. With Telemundo and Mun 2 now overseen by NBCU cable maven Lauren Zalaznick, both channels are expected to raise their profile considerably in the coming months.

Lopez said he sees the market for TV geared to the bilingual aud in the U.S. being at the same inflection point as network TV was in the mid-1980s when Rupert Murdoch shook up the Big Three nets with the launch of Fox. “With the U.S. shifting demographically, advertisers want to reach (Hispanic) viewers, but they want to reach them in a context that is culturally relevant to them, where the advertisement will be better received,” Lopez said.

Sports channel Fox Deportes has been on the air for a decade and reaches 18 million cable homes. Fox became the U.S. distrib for Latin American femme channel Utilisima last summer; it’s now in about 4 million U.S. homes. Nat Geo Mundo is expected to bow with carriage in about 4 million homes via AT&T, Cox Cable, Dish Network and Verizon.

Nat Geo Mundo will be able to tap into Fox Intl. Channels’ existing Latin American infrastructure, which brings programming assets and production relationships.

“We’re already producing a significant amount of original output in Spanish-speaking countries,” Lopez said.

Meanwhile, Comcast said it is on track to launch at least one English-lingo channel with Hispanic management by July 28, 2012. The other two channels in the first batch will be primarily African-American owned and bow by Jan. 28, 2013. The cable giant is accepting proposals through May 31 via its corporate website for the first three of 10 outlets it has vowed to launch over the next eight years.

Comcast’s NBCU merger commitments amount to an extraordinary opportunity for entrepreneurs to secure beachfront real estate on the nation’s largest cable operator. The importance of the moment is not lost on the advocacy orgs that worked with Comcast to put its promises on paper. “While we’re still in the infant stages of the process, we think it’s very promising,” said Lisa Navarrete, an exec with the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza. “They’ve announced a sort of open casting call for new cable channels. That holds a lot of promise to us.”

Bounce TV, meanwhile, aims to secure distribution as a 24-hour service carried by digital multicast channels of local broadcast stations. It will offer station partners a syndication-style split of half the ad inventory in exchange for programming. Its initial licensing deals include hundreds of feature films from NBCU and Sony plus specials, docus and other programming from Codeblack Entertainment and Image Entertainment.

Rob Hardy and Will Packer, co-founders of Rainforest Films, the shingle behind “Stomp the Yard” and other pics, will run Bounce TV, with Hardy as chief content officer and Packer as chief strategy and marketing officer. Former Sony Pictures TV exec Jeffrey Wolf will oversee distribution.

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