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THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Pay TV Cos. Delve Into Ethnic Channels
10 February 2005
NEW YORK (AP) -- More and more Americans don't speak English at home, and pay TV companies are noticing.
Once a neglected group, recent immigrants and other multilingual Americans are getting some TV viewing options these days -- from Chinese variety shows to Mexican soap operas to Polish news.
EchoStar Communications Corp., whose Dish service is seen as the leader in the field, is starting to face more competition as rival satellite TV company DirecTV Group Inc. ramps up its foreign-language offerings.
At the same time, cable companies, some of which already had substantial offerings in certain markets, are expanding or repackaging their services.
Statistics explain the increased interest. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly one in five U.S. residents -- about 47 million people -- now speaks a language other than English at home. That's 15 million more people than in 1990 and double the number in 1980.
The United States is 30 percent nonwhite today; that figure is expected to increase to 50 percent by 2050. The shift is particularly noticeable among younger Americans in the coveted age 18 to 34 demographic.
``The majority white population is getting increasingly older...as you get younger, the nonwhite-to-white ratio is remarkably close,'' said Manish Jha, president of the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications, a trade group that promotes diversity in the media. Hispanics, for example, are the fastest-growing of all ethnic groups and have the lowest average age of any.
``It was an overlooked market,'' DirecTV Chief Executive Chase Carey said recently.
But no longer: during the company's recent quarterly call, executives said that expansion of foreign-language programming would be one of DirecTV's top priorities this year. The initiative is part of a larger attack on cable operators from which satellite companies have been stealing subscribers.
Industry surveys and evidence from other industries show that it pays to cater to nonwhite households, who are willing to pay more for digital cable, premium programming, large-screen TVs, wireless content and video games.
According to a recent survey by Knowledge Networks/SRI, a N.J. media research firm, 44 percent of Hispanic households in the United States own a large-screen TV, compared with 40 percent of white households. In the wireless phone market, Asian and Hispanic users generate more revenue per user, on average, than do white subscribers, Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, has found.
``The willingness to spend is clearly there,'' said Jha.
Companies are jumping at the opportunity to test that proposition. For satellite and cable companies, adding foreign-language programming can be a particularly lucrative business. Most of the channels merely recycle programs from other countries, so programming costs are relatively low. At the same time, the willingness to pay for that programming is pretty high, Jha said.
The price of packages range greatly by carrier, but generally, separate packages offering Spanish programs run about $30 a month, while add-ons can range from $3 to $15 monthly.
Companies generally don't break out subscriber numbers for specific services, but satellite and cable companies say demand for foreign-language channels is growing fast.
At EchoStar, which offers 140 foreign-language channels in 30 languages, growth has been at ``incredible rates,'' said spokeswoman Kelley Popp.
DirecTV, knowing it still has a way to catch up to EchoStar, added Hindi, Vietnamese, Italian and other languages to its roster in the past year. It also said subscriptions for its Spanish-language package, ``Para Todos,'' tripled in the past year.
``We're trying hard to add wherever we get rights,'' Carey said. It will take some time though, as many programming rights are locked up in long-term contracts, he said.
``We haven't caught up with EchoStar yet but we're growing faster than they are,'' he said.
For cable operators, packages vary by market.
Privately held Cox Communications, which has more than six million customers around the country, overhauled its Spanish-language offering in several cities this past summer.
A marketing team found that 80 percent of Spanish-language homes in Cox's markets had roots in Mexico, as opposed to Puerto Rico or elsewhere, so ``it made sense to choose certain channels over others,'' said spokesman Bobby Amirshahi.
The company also found that adding HBO to the package was the ``killer ingredient,'' he said. Since the changes, Cox has seen demand for the package, Paquete Latino, improve substantially. There are plans to introduce the package to additional markets soon.
Similarly, Time Warner Inc.'s Time Warner Cable and Cablevision Systems Corp. offer a number of add-on packages in Spanish or other languages.