Univision jumps into political fray

Net finds itself at center of immigration debate

Univision has long had political muscle — but now it’s eager to flex.

The company devotes significant air time to public service announcements, and since January it has been using its air to urge viewers to become citizens and to vote.

“We think it’s an important, fundamental right of every citizen,” net topper Joe Uva says. “Hispanics in this country may decide the next president of the United States.”

The company is embracing a hot-button issue for both the English- and Spanish-speaking worlds: immigration.

Morning drive host Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo, the top-rated radio personality in Los Angeles, is spearheading a nationwide letter-writing campaign to support passage of “a fair and just immigration reform bill,” with Univision’s blessing. Last year, he helped organize a pro-immigrant event in Los Angeles that drew half a million marchers.

Contempt for the tenor of the debate on immigration is a common thread in Univision’s news coverage. Both “Noticiero Univision” co-anchors, Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos, have debated CNN anchor Lou Dobbs on the issue of illegal immigrants.

“They know this approach is going to make them look good because it makes them seem like they are champions of the community,” says Arnoldo Torres, longtime political anchor at Univision, who left popular political show “Voz y Voto” in 2004.

Former Univision chief Jerrold Perenchio supported candidates and political causes that backed his business interests.

He was a big financial supporter of California’s immigrant governor, which is why many were surprised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent comment that the best way for Hispanics to succeed in the U.S. is to “turn off the Spanish television set.”

Univision was quick with a response, citing the “essential roles” that Spanish-language media plays in U.S. society.

“Spanish speakers rely on Spanish-language media for information in critical situations such as hurricane alerts and health emergencies, and for other public services they may not be able to get anywhere else,” a Univision spokesperson said.

Others pointed out that Schwarzenegger courted the Hispanic vote with advertising on Univision, played up his immigrant heritage to them and took about 40% of the Hispanic vote — unheard-of for a California Republican.

Since Univision began its campaign of PSAs in California, the network says citizenship applications are up 146%.

But Univision has bigger political aspirations, bidding to host presidential debates with both parties in September. Uva likens the campaign to MTV’s “Rock the Vote.”

So far, only two Democrats — Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) — have agreed to participate, but the others will be hard-pressed to explain why they would skip Univision at a time when they are actively courting the Hispanic vote and debating on cable nets that have a fraction of the viewers.

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