Esta página no está disponible en español.
I Want My Spanish TV
By Amy C. Sims
August 14, 2002
NEW YORK A strapping young stud shouts, "Tu eres mi esposa!" at a busty brunette, who slaps him before they lock lips.
If you don't know what he's saying but are intrigued, you could be one of the growing numbers of non-Spanish-speaking viewers watching Spanish television.
The passion, enthusiasm and sexy wardrobes of Spanish-language shows are attracting record numbers of viewers -- many of whom can't understand a word characters are saying.
Stephanie Pillersdorf, spokesperson for the country's most popular Spanish network, Univision, cites the success of crossover performers like Salma Hayek who make English and Spanish-language films as part of the reason for the Espanol explosion.
Shifting demographics in the U.S. have much to do with the trend. In 2000, according to the Census Bureau, more than 26 million people over the age of 5 spoke Spanish at home -- a 54 percent increase from 1990.
But it's not just the numbers that are relevant. Changing cultural attitudes in the United States also make a world of difference.
"A generation ago speaking Spanish was something to be phased out. 'You're in America and now you speak English,'" said Federico Subervi, chair of the department of communication studies at Pace University. "But now keeping Spanish and improving it is culturally acceptable."
The stiff-upper-lip approach to feelings on English television is contrary to the Latino culture, and Spanish-language shows have an over-the-top quality missing from most American series, Subervi said. "The expression of emotion is the norm that is reflected in the Spanish TV programs. And viewers are going with one that touches their emotions," he said.
One of the best examples of cross-viewership came during the recent World Cup.
"Between its three networks, Univision had all of the games live, as did either ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC during the course of [the] tournament," said Pillersdorf.
"Univision had 35 million viewers, and of that viewership over 15 million were non-Hispanic -- a huge number given that all games were live on English TV as well."
Why did so many people watch soccer in a language they couldn't understand?
The unbridled enthusiasm of Univision's announcers and the life-or-death urgency in their commentary makes every second of the game thrilling, say fans. Plus, the longwinded scoring call, "Goooaaaallll!" has become a trademark for the announcers.
Conor Foy, an Irish soccer fan in Brooklyn, N.Y., watched all of the World Cup games in Spanish, although he doesn't speak the language.
"When World Cup was on, a lot of people watched Univision because of bad commentary on American stations," he said. "They stick guys on ESPN who sound like they've never played in their lives. On Spanish coverage you can hear their voices change with the pace of the game. They're more enthusiastic and know more about it because that's the game they play."
But soap operas packed with wild plots, melodramatic performances and bursting silicone cleavage still rule the Latin airwaves. "The novelas are the most popular programming genre on Spanish-language TV," said Pillersdorf.
Anna Fuerniss, an OB-GYN resident, doesn't have much time to watch television but when she does tune in, she watches telenovelas to improve her beginning Spanish skills.
"I don't understand every word, but I improve my Spanish speaking skills just listening to it," she said. "It's always the same story about love and hatred. I know what's going on by gestures and following their lips.
"If it were in English I would never watch. It's more interesting for me because I don't understand everything so I'm always trying to figure out new words."
Do you watch Spanish TV without understanding the language?
Yes, for the high energy and enthusiasm.
No, understanding the words is important.
Occasionally, for the sexy stars.
This is not a scientific poll.
Subervi concurs that watching Spanish television can help improve speaking skills.
"One of the best tools for second- and third-generation Latinos who didn't learn Spanish to learn [to speak] Spanish is the children's programs and the soap operas," he said. "Once you start with learning a few words, you want to continue."
Whether picking up the language or tuning in for entertainment, non-Spanish speakers are watching for an essential element that they find missing on English channels. As Foy summed it up: "You can just hear the excitement in their voices."