02/24/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

Is the Future of Hispanic Broadcast Television Up in the Air?

Hispanics are among the most enthusiastic consumers of information, news and entertainment in the United States today. They value reliability, accuracy and most importantly, access.

To many of these families the high cost of monthly basic cable and satellite TV packages are beyond their means. As a result, they turn to broadcast television for their favorite shows, community news and critical updates during emergencies. In fact, 51 percent of the 59.7 million of Americans who rely on free, over-the-air broadcast TV live in homes where Spanish is the language of choice.

This wasn't always the case. Just five years ago, Hispanic broadcast networks and local television stations were struggling to increase their viewership in cities with the largest Latino populations - New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

Today, cities such as Houston, Dallas, San Diego, San Antonio, Phoenix and Denver are home to thriving Hispanic TV stations that deliver hit shows such as "Corazón Indomable". And in July 2013, Univision Network ranked number one ahead of all the English-language broadcast networks.

There is no question that the 43 percent demographic growth in the U.S. Latino population during the past decade has greatly influenced consumer preferences and trends in the video marketplace.

Stations are rising to the challenge to meet the needs of Hispanic viewers as a trusted source of information and community partner.

Many local stations have led public campaigns to raise awareness of issues such as the importance of Latino representation in the Census 2010 count, voter registration drives and information about the Affordable Care Act and access to health insurance. For example, Univision in partnership with Entravision Communications, NCLR and other national organizations, launched the "ya es hora ¡CIUDADANIA!" campaign as a call to action for eligible Latinos to start the path to naturalization.

Empowering the communities they serve is an important role not only for local broadcast stations, but also for beloved television figures such as María Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos. Many of these TV-personalities have pushed strongly for passage of immigration reform.

These examples affirm the key contributions that local broadcasters provide in offering quality programming, serving as a critical lifeline for local news and serving as community advocates.

Preserving access to this content on the public airwaves and ensuring a system that continues to invest in this type of programming well into the future is critical to the Hispanic community. But in the debate over retransmission fees between cable providers and broadcast networks, the important voice of the Latino consumer has been lost.

Our community needs to know that big cable and satellite TV providers like Time Warner, DirectTV and DISH aren't settling for just loading consumers up with skyrocketing equipment rental costs and early termination fees on their monthly bills. They are trying to persuade Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington to create new laws that would allow them to dictate prices for what millions of Hispanic TV viewers watch every day.

These pay-TV providers claim that the "retransmission fees" that broadcasters receive to produce local channels on cable and satellite TV are disproportionately driving up consumers' monthly bills. Yet, they fail to mention that the compensation broadcast networks and local TV stations receive is significantly lower than what cable companies charge their customers.

While asking for Washington's help, consumer cable bills continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation. In fact, many of these yearly increases occurred well before pay-TV providers were paying local broadcasters to retransmit local TV signals on their cable systems.

No need to wonder why more and more consumers are cutting the cord, fleeing pay-TV services, and relying on free over-the-air broadcast TV.

Retransmission fees help ensure the viability of America's local TV stations and support broadcasters' ability to create and air the most widely watched television programming in the nation.

With each passing day, Americans are becoming increasingly frustrated with rising cable and satellite TV bills, manufactured pay-TV blackouts and early termination fees (ETFs) that limit consumer choice, particularly during service disruptions when consumers want to drop their pay-TV service.

In the end, big cable and satellite TV providers don't care if some American consumers can't afford to pay for their service, they'll bank on future price hikes that gouge their current customers and increase their record profits at the expense of US consumer and local broadcast TV stations.

If big pay-TV succeeds in effectively killing the vital retransmission fees that broadcasters rely on to provide quality local programming, we risk losing our Hispanic broadcasters and the valuable and important local programming they provide to tens of millions of Hispanic TV viewers throughout America.

Gus West is Board Chair and President of The Hispanic Institute (THI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to providing meaningful policy debate and analysis on issues important to the Hispanic community.