Spanish, French, English TV

Any time I write about “Canadian TV” while referring to English-language shows only, I’m chided in comments, and rightly. Though as an Anglophone I naturally follow English-language shows more closely, the French-Canadian film and TV industry tends to be more vibrant and productive than its Anglo counterpart. I wonder if something similar might eventually happen in the U.S., where the Hispanic population continues to grow, and where Univision, the biggest Spanish-language network, is seeing a comparable growth in viewership. It gets quite a few more viewers than the CW, and some nights it’s not much lower than NBC. There’s no reason why it couldn’t wind up surpassing NBC someday.

Now, there’s a difference between Univision and French-Canadian stations. Most Spanish-language shows in the States are imported from Mexico and other Spanish-language countries; Univision doesn’t seem to produce that much of its own programming . The equivalent would be if most French-Canadian programs were imports or co-productions, and they’re not; because of geography and language differences, French-Canadian film and television is its own animal with its own separate industry. (I once saw a French-Canadian show on a France TV channel; it was subtitled in un-Canadianized French.) The vibrancy of Francophone TV comes not just from the number of people who watch it, but the number of people who make it and the unique style that it has developed.

So the question about U.S. Spanish-language programming is whether it will eventually develop its own style and a major production centre within the U.S. (Of course, maybe I don’t know enough about it to recognize that there already is one.) What interests me about this is that Spanish-language programming in the States has exactly the same problem that English-language programming has here: it’s too close to another country with a much stronger industry. The weakness of the Anglo-Canadian TV industry is that viewers generally prefer to watch shows from the States; the same may apply to the U.S., where home-grown Spanish-language shows would have to compete with stronger shows from Mexico and Venezuela and still other countries.

Univision did announce its intention to expand its original programming slate, something that is necessary if they really want to be a major player comparable to the big networks. There, as here, it’s doubtful that you can truly be a major network when your biggest successes are shows from other countries. Univision has a deal with Televisa, the big Mexican network, to get the U.S. rights to many of its shows — they even got in trouble with Televisa for “unauthorized editing” of the shows, something that is not unfamiliar in Canada either. But the contract could run out or move to someone else, and then they’d be screwed; the way to carve out a really secure place as an important broadcaster is to have shows that can’t be seen on another network.

It’s too early to tell how the U.S.’s Spanish-language TV industry will develop, and the parallels between the U.S. and Canada are certainly not perfect. But it’s just because the parallels aren’t perfect that it will be interesting to find out how this goes. Will there be Spanish channels that are genuinely major forces in entertainment, a parallel (and, potentially) stronger TV universe like we have in French Canada? Or will the growth of the Spanish-speaking population mean more for the U.S. popularity of Mexican shows, just as English Canadians mostly choose U.S. shows? Worth keeping an eye on.

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