A battle of linguistic proportions is brewing in the nation’s small TV markets, as Univision aggressively pursues outlets for its new Spanish-language network Telefutura.

While the TV biz as a whole continues to weather an advertising squeeze, media outlets geared toward U.S. Spanish-language speakers continue to grow. And with few available TV stations in the smaller markets, many English-lingo net affils — particularly stations aligned with newer webs Fox, WB and UPN — are ripe for the picking.

Indeed, a handful of English net affils in Texas have already announced plans to switch to Telefutura (which launches Jan. 14) this year, with more swaps possible.

Most recently, Mexico-based broadcaster Televisa said it would switch its Fox affil XHFOX-TV, which serves Harlingen-Brownsville-McAllen, Texas (the nation’s no. 100 market), to Spanish programming (presumably Telefutura) — and is expected to drop Fox from XHFTX-TV in Laredo, Texas (market 194) as well.

Dropped Fox

XHFOX was the seventh small-market station in the last 16 months to drop its Fox affiliation; however, the other stations abandoning Fox switched to another English-lingo net, such as the WB or CBS.

Meanwhile, WB execs are hopping mad over plans by Univision and station group owner Entravision (which is 32% owned by Univision) to purchase two WB affils from White Knight Broadcasting in Waco, Texas (market 94) and El Paso, Texas (market 101), and immediately flip the stations to Telefutura. White Knight has already petitioned the FCC to change KKWB’s call letters to KTFN (for “Telefutura”).

As a result, the WB filed suit against Univision, Telefutura, White Knight and Entravision late last year; the Frog net now plans to file a motion for preliminary injunction on Friday morning to prevent the companies from going through with the switch.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, White Knight informed the WB in October that it had agreed to sell KAKW and KKWB to for $30 million — “provided that they disaffiliate from the WB and instead affiliate with the competing Univision television network.”

Breaking pacts?

But the WB’s affiliation pact with KAKW-TV in Waco doesn’t expire until Jan. 15, 2008, while its deal with El Paso’s KKWB-TV doesn’t end until Jan. 11, 2005.

Together, the stations reach 571,930 TV households, or a little over 0.5% of the country. Faced with the prospect of losing that distribution, the WB accuses Univision and the other defendants of “blatant, intentional interference” and calls the move to drop the weblet’s affiliation an “unlawful scheme.”

Reps for the WB, Univision, White Knight and Entravision were all unavailable for comment.

On the other hand, the Fox affiliate flips were probably inevitable. Although a Mexican broadcaster, Televisa also operates a handful of English-language net affils geared toward U.S. viewers across the border — most notably, San Diego Fox affil XETV.

Joint agreement

Entravision operates XETV and San Diego UPN affil XUPN under a joint marketing agreement. Televisa also increased its ownership stake in Univision in late December. Televisa announced its intentions to drop Fox on XHFOX soon after.

Sources inside the station community said the recent affiliate poaching is inevitable given the dearth of full-power TV stations in smaller markets — and new Spanish-lingo entrants like Telefutura, Azteca America and HTVN.

“A broadcast network is a unique, singular kind of asset,” said one station insider. “With so many competing networks like the WB, UPN, Pax and religious broadcasters, they’re all going to try to pick off broadcast stations. And now you have a 10th entrant like Telefutura, and they want those assets.”

In markets that straddle the U.S./Mexico border, switching to a Spanish network frequently makes the most sense. El Paso, for example, contains the nation’s second-largest concentration of Spanish speakers: According to Census Bureau estimates, 70% of the city’s population speaks the language at home.

And while it may be the nation’s 100th market overall, Harlingen-Brownsville-McAllen ranks ninth among the nation’s Hispanic TV households.

In an age when Univision stations in Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and other markets frequently outrate their English network affiliate competitors among adults 18-34 and 18-49, switching to Spanish programming has never been more appealing from a business standpoint.

After all, NBC just paid $1.9 billion to purchase No. 2 Spanish broadcaster Telemundo.

“Everyone knows that the Spanish-language population is growing,” said one English network exec. “It makes some sense to switch over.”