Two weeks ago, the night of the final World Series game, the Fox network—perhaps predictably—won the evening in ratings among 18-34-year-old viewers. It had the big game, of course, and World Series game sevens are almost always highly rated. (This one, though lower than prior game sevens, was no exception, ending up as one of the week’s top programs.) But the network that came in second on that night among that demographic was fairly curious: It was Univision, which clobbered ABC, CBS, NBC, and The CW.
But if you dig through the network’s Friday night numbers, that’s just the thing: It usually wins Friday nights among that demographic. The night Fox beat it was an unusual outlier, driven by a special event. Univision is a monster on Fridays, and last week, the universe reasserted itself, with the network once again pulling the largest numbers of any U.S. TV network in that demographic.
In and of itself, this doesn’t seem all that impressive. Friday night is the lowest-rated night the networks still program. (Saturday, with its diet of reruns, doesn’t really count.) Beating the networks on a Friday, while a coup for Univision, isn’t the coup the network would like to make it out to be. Similarly, the network’s greatest ratings success stories have come in the summer (as when I wrote about it a couple of months ago). While summer is more important to the Big Four than it used to be, it’s still not their main priority.
No, what makes Univision interesting is just how thoroughly it’s grown. Between the 1999-2000 TV season and the 2009-10 TV season, Univision’s audience grew by a remarkable 316 percent in the all-important 18-49-year-old demographic. The only other network of any size to come at all close to that mark was ESPN, which grew 297 percent. The Big Four and The CW? All of them lost substantial portions of their audience over the course of that decade. Some, like NBC and ABC, lost many thousands upon thousands of percentages of viewers. CBS and Fox posted more modest declines but were still clearly headed downward. The cable channels that posted boosts—outside of, again, ESPN—went up by very small amounts, like TBS’ 12 percent growth.
Univision is bucking any number of trends with this ratings growth (and it continued to post growth in the 2010-11 season and looks to continue that trend this year). For one thing, it’s bucking the “the network television model is dying” trend. You know that one. Theoretically, the network model has lost its usefulness in an age of Hulu and Netflix and online streaming and DVRs and iTunes. Younger viewers are harder and harder to find for non-sports programming because they know they have other options, and younger viewers are the lifeblood of TV programming, since advertisers pay premium to reach them. This gets to the second way Univision is bucking trends: The younger you go, the more Univision is reaching that audience. Though the network is still usually the fifth place network (ahead of only The CW in terms of major broadcast nets), it’s the only one growing, and the more you narrow down on younger viewers, the closer it gets to NBC. There’s every likelihood this will be the season Univision bumps NBC down to fifth in the 18-34-year-old race.
This isn’t really talked about in the media criticism game. There will be occasional curiosity pieces—like this one!—that point out that, hey, Univision is watched by a hell of a lot more people than most cable networks , on average. Granted, the network’s programming rarely breaks 4 million viewers or a 2.0 in the 18-49-year-old demo, but that’s damned close to what NBC is pulling most nights, and, again, it’s a number that keeps growing with every passing year. (And if one looks at the 18-34-year-old demo, the numbers get even tighter, with Univision coming in third or even second in many timeslots per week, particularly when CBS, ABC, and NBC all air older-skewing programs.) There are reasons no one talks about this, of course. Most media critics are writing and working in English, for English-speaking audiences, and Univision still doesn’t air any non-Spanish-language programming (nor should it have to). And the network’s PR efforts have only really turned around in recent years, with those who work there finally beginning to send out the sort of ratings crowing press releases that are the norm at even The CW.
One other thing that makes Univision so attractive to advertisers: The audience is uniquely “sticky.” This means that of the people watching Univision, there’s a relatively high percentage who can only be reached by watching that specific channel. In this case, 69 percent of all Univision viewers are unique to that network, as opposed to nine percent for Fox, the highest-rated one of the Big Four in this regard. The network may occasionally see viewers leave to watch a major event—the Super Bowl or American Idol or Modern Family—but they generally come right back to Univision once that event is over.
Now, granted, all of this may seem to be because Univision is in Spanish, which would seem to attract a certain segment of the population. But this goes to another trend Univision is bucking, at least at present. The history of immigrant media in the United States has always been one of a major group moving into the country, forming its own micro-culture within the larger culture, then gradually assimilating over the course of generations. Part of this is a rich history of immigrant media. The Europeans who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century would often form newspapers aimed primarily at their own communities, newspapers designed to provide a source for news in the “mother tongue,” so to speak. But as these immigrants had children who were functionally bilingual, able to speak both German and English equally well, say, then the foreign-language media sources would slowly wither and die over the course of multiple generations.
It’s entirely possible this will happen to Univision, too, 50 years down the road. But the 18-34-year-old generation of Latinos in the U.S. is increasingly a bilingual generation of second-generation immigrants, born in the U.S. and fluent in both English and Spanish. However, this audience, more and more, turns to Univision for most of its news and entertainment. There are plenty of reasons for this, including the fact that the network remains a prominent community touchstone between these younger Latinos and their immigrant parents and the fact that Univision is one of the few places earnestly discussing issues important to Latinos in today’s media landscape. But it’s still an encouraging sign for the network that as it gets older, it manages to maintain a fairly young audience, particularly compared to the other major networks.
Univision, of course, faces the same struggles all of the other networks do when it comes to figuring out how to make the broadcast TV model work in a world that’s moving more toward getting content via other means. But the network’s solid strategy of broadcasting to a specific demographic but then trying to hit as much of that demographic as possible seems to be working out. In 10 years, Univision just might be the number one or number two network in the country, and it will have gotten there by growing, not by holding firm while everybody else fell down.
Next time: It’s become evident that there are lots of questions about ratings and how they work and so on and so forth. Ask your biggest questions about TV ratings (or about how they apply to specific programs or networks or whatever) in comments, and I’ll try to answer my five favorites the next time I find time to do one of these.