Chinese TV station sale highlights growing pains in ethnic media

By Michelle R. Smith Associated Press Writer
Monday December 24, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – The explosion of the Hispanic and Chinese populations in the United States during the past decade has been a boon for ethnic media that cater to people with limited English. 

But the growth – particularly among Spanish-language media – is upsetting Chinese immigrants in the San Francisco Bay area, where the nation’s largest Spanish-language network, Univision, is expanding with plans to buy the city’s primary Mandarin-language station, KPST, Channel 66. 

That affects people like Cheuk-Wah Chan, an elderly immigrant from Hong Kong who lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She could soon be left with just one option, the primarily Cantonese-language KTSF, Channel 26, to get her information. 

“With the language factor, she would have a hard time watching English news,” said her son-in-law, Albert Wang, a Fremont physician who came to the United States from Taiwan in 1972. 

Several San Francisco-based community groups and politicians have asked the Federal Communications Commission to require Univision to maintain the daily 4 1/2 hours of Chinese programming, which includes news, variety shows and soap operas. 

“There is a very strong dependence on those programs for news and information about everything ranging from the current war to more local issues,” said Diane Chin, executive director of San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action. 

Spanish-speaking immigrants, who share a common language, appear to be the biggest beneficiaries of the boom in ethnic media: Univision and Telemundo Communications Group, Inc. – the top two Hispanic networks – are growing exponentially, and their viewership has quadrupled since 1990, according to analysts. 

To a lesser extent, Chinese have also benefited. The number of Asian media outlets has grown an estimated 250 percent since 1990, to about 600 across the country, according to Jimmy Lee of Los Angeles-based Imada Wong Communications Group. 

“It’s clear that this long-ignored segment of the news media is coming into its own,” said Sandy Close, executive director of New California Media, a network of ethnic news organizations. “There are easily 2,500 ethnic news organizations in the state. The two biggest segments are Asian and Hispanic.” 

But when it comes to network television, language has contributed to the growth of Spanish-language programming, and prevented such cohesion in the Chinese market. 

“There’s no language that unifies the whole market,” said Sergio Benedixen, of Benedixen and Associates, a Miami-based polling and political consulting firm. “Language is the most important element of media. Therefore their markets are very limited,” as well as the capital they can raise, he said. 

The Chinese immigrant community is separated by language. People from Beijing and Taiwan speak Mandarin, and those from Hong Kong and southern China largely speak Cantonese. Though many are capable in both languages, it’s not enough to create a network to serve them. 

By contrast, there is no end to the prospects for Spanish-language television channels, which can reach immigrants from Peru to Mexico with equal effectiveness. 

Univision, which says it reaches 93 percent of Hispanic households in the United States, announced plans earlier this year to buy KPST and more than a dozen other stations in an effort to launch another Spanish-language network, Telefutura. 

Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate KPST, in the nation’s 5th largest television market, is one of the stations Univision might use to build the new network. 

Frances Palacios, a spokeswoman for Univision in San Francisco, declined to comment about the station, or whether the network plans to convert it to Spanish programming. 

In one of the most striking signs yet of the industry’s growth, NBC announced plans in October to buy Telemundo for about $2 billion in cash and stock. 

Analysts said those competitive pressures are behind Univision’s purchase of KPST. 

“The growth has been close to unbelievable,” Benedixen said. His firm is conducting a study on the reach of ethnic media in California, due out in early 2002. “Univision and Telemundo together are easily getting more than two-thirds of all Hispanic viewers.” 

Population growth is a main factor behind the explosion in ethnic media, Benedixen said. 

Nationally, the Hispanic population grew 58 percent between 1990 and 2000, and the Asian population grew 38 percent, according to U.S. Census data. 

In the Bay Area, the Hispanic population has grown 9 percent since 1990 and now represents 14 percent of San Francisco’s population. The Chinese population has increased 20 percent and now represents a fifth of the city’s residents. 

An increasing number of first-generation immigrants also has fueled demand for non-English sources of news and entertainment, analysts said. 

The 2000 census found 10 percent of the U.S. population is foreign born. Fifty-one percent were born in Latin America, and 26 percent were born in Asia. In the San Francisco area, Asians make up more than half of the foreign-born population, according to a 1997 survey by the census. It’s the most recent data available. 

It’s unclear how many people are watching KPST. Lee said reliable numbers are hard to come by because Chinese stations aren’t rated by Nielsen Media Research. Viewership estimates range from 50,000 to 400,000 viewers. 

The FCC has received more than 3,000 public comments on the matter, but could not provide details on how many wanted restrictions placed on the sale. Letters provided by the FCC, and details of some letters posted on the FCC Web site, all objected to the sale. 

Some analysts say if KPST ends Chinese programming, the demand will certainly be met elsewhere. 

“I don’t see this as a Darwinian competition among ethnic media,” said Close. “One way or another they’re going to find a way to do it because the need is just so great.”