Roping In Ratings

A television tuned to KTMD-Channel 48 provides recent news on NATO air strikes. The next message updates viewers on another skirmish in a war much closer to home: the battle for credibility and viewer ratings in Houston's Hispanic community.

"EDITORIAL 48" fills the screen, followed by the scene of general manager Marco Camacho seated near an image of a cowboy riding a bull.

"The rodeo is a Hispanic tradition," Camacho says in Spanish with English subtitles. "However, the people in charge of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo appear to think that this fact is unimportant. They have taken away scholarships that have been dedicated exclusively for Hispanics."

Across the airwaves and city, KXLN-Channel 45 beams the images of Mexicans dancing to mariachi music outside the Astrodome. Responding directly to the Channel 48 editorials, the rival station's commercials laud the rodeo and its Go Tejano Committee for upholding Hispanic tradition.

"Contrary to what you might have heard on another television station," a voice says in Spanish, "the rodeo offers support in the form of scholarships to all students in the city."

Camacho counterattacks with another editorial that challenges the "lack of protest" by Channel 45 and some Houston companies about the changes in scholarships.

"Could it be that the ... rodeo has so much power that nobody wants to offend them?" A list of rodeo sponsors scrolls behind Camacho. They include Gallery Furniture, Coors, Foley's, the Houston Chronicle and Univision, owner of the rival station.

The stations' opposite stances on rodeo scholarships is just one line of skirmish in their continuing fight to attract Houston's Spanish-language audience.

News format changes and hiring wars are evidence that the battle is escalating between these two stations. As Houston's Latino population increases to an estimated one-third of total population by 2000, so does the potential for revenue at the stations.

Since its inception, Channel 45 has been the more popular of the two, in part because of its affiliation with the 30-station Univision network. Channel 45 is a high-wattage Spanish station that covers news in an in-depth Latin-American investigative style.

Its popularity has sometimes pulled away Channel 48 employees, such as former weather announcer Christina Garza, who is now a Channel 45 investigative reporter.

Channel 45's national newscast offers wide-ranging coverage of Latin America.

However, the standard stories are accompanied by sensational ones, such as the segment on a Salvadorian man who lost his arms in the explosion of a land mine left over from the country's civil war. Channel 45 broadcast video of the armless man trying to feed himself using his feet.

To battle the big-budget news shows of Univision, Camacho introduced Channel 48's English closed-caption broadcasts of Spanish-language news shows, reported to be the first of their kind in the nation.

He beefed up the news staff with veterans such as former KTRK-Channel 13 news director Richard Longoria (who has since left) and a news team focusing on investigative journalism and undercover stories.

Such efforts have proved prosperous. For the first time since Channel 48 went on the air in 1988, the station's ratings have skyrocketed, at a rate faster than other Telemundo affiliates. Revenue increased 110 percent, and the station is gaining ground in the market, though Channel 45's ratings also continue to climb.

However, news formats are only one factor in overall programming, where Channel 45 has held a considerable edge.

Following Channel 45's news are the station's very popular telenovelas (Spanish soap operas). Filled with sex, betrayal and occasional class conflict, most of them make their U.S. counterparts look like children's tales.

Channel 48 brought in its new general, Camacho, from his position as vice president of Spanish radio station KQQK/106.5 FM.

Camacho steered the station's programming toward American themes. He ditched old black-and-white Mexican movies and introduced several U.S.-style series. Some shows had English subtitles to attract non-Spanish-speakers.

However, the defining difference in the Houston rivalry remains. Channel 45 holds a virtual monopoly on the Hispanic award and entertainment shows. From the Premio Lo Nuestro (the Latin version of the Grammys) to live broadcasts of the Puerto Rican Parade in Manhattan, viewers get an MTV-esque look at who's who in musica Latina. Part of that package is the broadcast rights to Go Tejano Day at the rodeo.

Spanish media analysts generally applaud the programming innovations while hoping that there is even more media modernization for the Hispanic community.

Lorenzo Cano, associate director for the Center for the Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston, says the stations serve the community well, although both need more hard-hitting news.

"I hope that these editorials from Channel 48 are not the last on controversial issues," says Cano, "and I hope that Channel 45 starts running some as well."

"I would also like to see the stations move away from those telenovelas that are not reflective of the U.S. Latino experience and are not very realistic," he adds. "Stories about pretty maids falling love with rich South Americans get old after a while."

Cano says he would also like to see an emphasis on local news coverage. He hopes that Channel 48's rodeo editorials are not just a ploy to boost ratings.

Camacho says he intends to keep the heat up. He says increases in ratings and revenues enable him to attack conflicts of interest at Channel 45, where manager Adan Trevino is a Go Tejano committee member. "He does not want to look bad," says Camacho, "so of course he is going to side with the rodeo. I've had advertisers tell me that they will never advertise with [Channel 45] again because they sat on their hands with this."

Neither Trevino nor other Channel 45 officials would comment. Rodeo executives announced the end of the Go Tejano student aid by saying they wanted scholarships to be based on financial need, academic achievement and community involvement rather than on ethnic considerations. Overall scholarship grants increased last year by about 40 percent, to $7.7 million.

Camacho says his station's position has attracted widespread support, "yet I am the only one speaking out." He says the rival station's sponsorship of events might influence its news coverage.

"Everyone's in bed with them," he says. Channel 45 is more interested in making money than "serving the community," Camacho charges.

"This is not about ratings," he says. "This is about responsibility.


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