TEANECK, N.J. — On an evening its rivals were preoccupied with Christie Brinkley's divorce and the capture of a Brooklyn murder suspect, New York's WXTV led its local news with a story about graffiti saying "Get out of the USA" painted near a Peruvian restaurant on Long Island.
The Spanish-speaking Univision affiliate figured it was a more meaningful story for its audience, and those kind of choices are paying off.
Within the past few months, WXTV's 6 p.m. newscast has eclipsed its English-speaking competitors on ABC, CBS and NBC stations in popularity among viewers younger than 49. Sister station KMEX in Los Angeles had more viewers in June for its newscast than any of its English competitors, regardless of age, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Spanish-speaking news outlets all across the country have grown to become major players in their markets and all trends indicate that growth is only going to continue.
"It talks about how the United States is changing," said Ray Rodriguez, president and chief operating officer of Univision Communications Inc., the stations' parent company. "It's a bigger story than just television."
In the New York market, for example, there were 2.7 million Hispanics in 1990 and 4.3 million this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ramon Pineda, general manager of WXTV, stands in front of an enlarged map of that market that hangs on his office wall, pointing to different neighborhoods and how they are changing. Spanish Harlem used to be largely Puerto Rican and now is dominated by Mexican immigrants. The Bronx has mostly Puerto Ricans, Colombians have settled in Queens and Brooklyn has Mexicans. The old Cuban neighborhoods of Union City, N.J., now have Mexicans and other Central Americans. Most of the population growth has come in suburbs like Westchester County and Long Island.
It's his business to know these details, both for the news his station covers and to show advertisers that there's more of a market there than they might think.
In Los Angeles, the KMEX call letters are a hint that the audience composition is simpler. Their viewers are about 85 percent Mexican, said Maelia Macin, the station's general manager.
One startling change has been the TV-watching habits of Hispanic viewers. In 1995, most Hispanic viewers in New York primarily watched English-language television (62 percent) over Spanish-language stations (38 percent), according to Nielsen Media Research. Last year, viewers favored the Spanish stations 71 to 29 percent. Similar trends are happening elsewhere.
That might be alarming to people who believe these new citizens aren't assimilating into their new country, but Univision executives say the majority of their viewers' homes are bilingual.
"More and more bilingual Hispanics are tuning to us," Rodriguez said. "I think we're hitting the nerve. They can relate better. As our product has improved over time and more and more people are coming in, people tune in and say, `That feels more like me.'"
The choice is made more for content than language, Macin said.
The Long Island graffiti is one example of a story unlikely to make English-language stations. The Spanish-language stations pay close attention to immigration issues, and are often tipped by viewers reporting raids targeting illegal immigrants. Lou Dobbs, CNN's crusader against illegal immigration, went on WXTV for an interview.
The station has stringers in Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and sent its own staffer to cover the Dominican election, Pineda said. Sports will talk about the Mets and Yankees, but also about a big soccer game in Mexico.
With a very heavy concentration of Roman Catholics in the audience, WXTV gave extensive coverage to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the New York area, with a Spanish-speaking priest in the studio to explain the pope's activities.
General news isn't excluded; it's just that the mix is different. English-language stations covered it heavily when the aircraft carrier Intrepid got stuck in the mud, while WXTV mentioned it briefly in the program's third segment.
About 100 story tips a day come into her newsroom, said Norma Morato, WXTV's news director.
Morato, who worked for CBS' local news before joining WXTV, noticed that many public officials have added Spanish speakers in their press offices.
"They'll see us coming in and have a press conference in English, then say, `We'll take care of you when we're done,'" she said.
Most news stations try to create a sense of family among their viewers, but the Spanish-speaking stations are more aggressive in cultivating the relationship. They try to be a resource for viewers who have difficulty navigating a culture new to them. WXTV has run phone banks to help register voters, sponsored free breast cancer screenings, encouraged organ donations and helped explain how to call the Better Business Bureau.
KMEX calls its effort "a su lado" _ by your side _ and once aired a program to tell viewers facing home foreclosure what they could do.
"We do things outside the realm of news, but it gives an image to the viewers that we care," Pineda said.
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org