The Spanish language commercial television model has mostly followed and adapted American guidelines in its style, technique and content since its birth in the early 1950’s in Mexico and continuing through its expansion into the most important medium of communication in all Spanish-speaking countries. As such it displaced radio, along with public participation in programming, since television is unidirectional. It has developed into a quasi-monopoly, representing the interests of the powerful in each country, and now has seen the advent of cable, digitalization and the Internet.
Its most original contribution might be the Mexican telenovela, now watched in dozens of countries. These were born of the theater’s traditional three-act format, but are presented in episodes, Monday through Friday. With a melodramatic core, the series evolve rapidly over the course of a few months; they are simple and predictable, and at the end of each episode something is always left hanging. Next came the creation of the first longer telenovela, in 1969: “Simply Maria.” It stretched the drama over two years and modeled a new way to conquer the Latin American viewing public and eventually the world, moving from evening hours to prime time. Curiously, this was not a Mexican production, but Peruvian.
In this country, Spanish language television was conceived and adapted following the Mexican model, since its audience consisted primarily of Mexican immigrants. Soon, however, it ran afoul of American regulations that prevented monopolization. Even so, the two resulting networks, while growing exponentially, still followed the Mexican model and continued to transmit its content. The principal network is Univision. It dominates the market and in July surpassed the American “big four” in audience size in a certain time slot. Grupo Televisa, the largest Spanish language television company in both Mexico and the world, continues to hold stock in Univision and to influence that company.
Latinos here watch more television than any other ethnic group, making them more susceptible to manipulation as well as isolated from the English-speaking world. Many of them have cable or satellite and can watch channels from their home countries, thereby reinforcing their nostalgia. Although the two dominant networks, Univision and Telemundo, are no longer owned by Latinos, they still rely heavily on Mexican television as to both content and editorial perspective (at the same time, they also have their own content and perspectives that reflect the unique political dynamic among powerful Latinos in this country). The power centers of both these networks, and other smaller ones, are in Los Angeles and Miami, and to a lesser extent in New York, Chicago and other cities. The networks’ operational decisions are also influenced by small groups of educated Spaniards and South Americans who resent what they perceive to be a bias toward and by Mexicans.
Each group looks after its own interests, which mix with those of Grupo Televisa; the company served the government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party for decades and is now back in favor. The Cubans of Miami tend to be Republicans, the Mexicans of Los Angeles more liberal, but they all spend little time developing opinions and free and critical thinking, preferring to concentrate on entertainment that is simplistic and easy. This occurs here more than in Mexico and Latin America, for although Latino immigrants in this country are more affluent and are larger consumers, they remain ignorant of topics and issues in their home countries (understandably, since they no longer live there). In addition, because they don’t understand English, they are also unaware of the reality of life where they now live.
The result is even less desirable for those many Latinos who speak only Spanish in a world that is both foreign and familiar, with constant television programming—variety, news, sports, contests, soap operas, films, etc.—and advertisements that promote consumerism; the sexualization and objectification of women and men, regardless of age; machismo and the abuse and domination of women and children by men; sexism; homophobia; magical and irrational religiosity; the idealization of the Latino world above any other; ethnic and social division; and the promotion of confusing and contradictory values, including violence and drug and alcohol abuse.
To take advantage of and promote the ignorance and prejudices of these vulnerable people, the networks transmit “infomercials” in the early morning and late at night. They advertise questionable products that will cure anything; teach you English; help you lose weight; increase sexual desire and erection size; conquer your loved one; and offer you protection against all ills with amulets, medals and miraculous objects; and the usual kitchen products and gadgets for whatever, along with countless other scams of every type. Long live T.V.!
Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer, and a native of Puebla, Mexico, with decades-old ties to the Point Reyes Light. The original Spanish language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.