The Great Kids Debate

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It would be hard to imagine a more aptly-named pioneer in the realms of U.S. Hispanic cartoon characters than Dora the Explorer. Not only is the spunky bilingual girl watched by 22.6 million people each month on Nickelodeon, but Dora has spawned a $3 billion merchandising juggernaut and a major Hispanic marketing campaign, La Casa de Dora.

Popular shows like Dora — along with Scholastic Television’s Maya & Miguel on PBS and Mucha Lucha on The WB and Cartoon Network — sit together on the English-language side of an industry debate over the best way to target Hispanic kids.

On one side of the divide are those who believe that Latino children are best served with English programming, and on the other are those who see the importance of Spanish-language kids shows.

The schism comes at a time when marketers and programmers are increasingly aware that the Hispanic community tends to be younger than the general population. About 40% of all Latinos are under the age of 21 versus 30% for the general population.

No wonder that Nickelodeon is planning a Dora spin-off, Go Diego Go, and is working on a pilot for a kids show with John Leguizamo, according to network president Cyma Zarghami. Sponsors will cough up $40 million in 2005 for a variety of Dora-themed initiatives, including La Casa de Dora, the Dora Live Tour and stage musical Dora’s Pirate Adventure targeted to both Latinos and Anglos.

The stakes involved in this debate were highlighted in 2002, when fast-food chain McDonald’s stopped using Spanish-language programming to market its services to kids. Recently OMD Latino, which has McDonald’s as a client, issued research showing that Hispanic kids ages 2 to 11 spent about 80% of their time watching English-language programming.

Spanish-language programmers hotly dispute the idea that Hispanic kids prefer English-language fare. Univision, they point out, has two of the five top-rated kids shows among Hispanics ages 2 to 11 even though the network has not invested heavily in the kids area.

Univision and Telemundo declined to comment on their kid’s strategies. But Michael Fletcher, president of Firestone Communications, which owns Spanish-language kids channel ¡Sorpresa!, says the Focus Latino study released by Horowitz & Associates in 2003 found that “81% of Hispanic families with children think it’s important to have Spanish-language television at home, and that 91% of Hispanic families with children think it’s important to have culturally relevant children’s programming.”

The language question presents programmers with “something of a conundrum,” says Zarghami. “We want to do everything we can to serve the Hispanic audience, but our research indicates that they would prefer us to serve them with English, not Spanish-language programming.”

Unlike Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network does have an secondary audio programming feed. But Kim McQuilken, executive vice president of Cartoon sales and marketing, stresses that “it’s the brand and the popularity of programming in the Hispanic community, not the SAP feed” that has attracted Hispanic audiences.

McQuilken sees rising advertising revenues among packaged-goods companies “that have been expanding their Hispanic campaigns.” Last fall, for example, Kellogg Co. teamed up with Cartoon to launch the “Kellogg’s Scooby-Doo and Cartoon Network Friends Tour,” which traveled to three cities with large Hispanic populations.

David Perez, CEO of the market strategy firm Latin Force, expects more such alliances. Perez, who advises Nickelodeon on all aspects of its Hispanic strategy and helped develop the idea for La Casa de Dora tour, notes that advertisers still aren’t devoting enough attention to Hispanic consumers. “Hispanics, for example, index much higher on the money they spend on toys and other products for their children than the general public,” Perez says.

To tap into that demand, Spanish-language programmers are trying to overcome some of the handicaps they face in terms of limited programming budgets and distribution. Since its launch in March 2003, ¡Sorpresa! has managed to secure carriage on about 300 cable systems reaching about 600,000 homes and last year began inking deals with broadcasters to air its Spanish-language children’s programs on local stations.

So far, the network’s largest deal has been with Azteca America, which gets the programming for free in exchange for giving ¡Sorpresa! air time. That has broadened distribution for ¡Sorpresa!, while allowing Azteca America to expand its kid’s programming to eight hours each weekend.

In addition to that deal, Azteca America is sponsoring a soccer youth tournament that will involve 1,200 teams in 80 cities, as well as workshops with stars from the Mexican league, says Jorge Jaidar, chief operating officer of Azteca America.

In the end, Perez argues that the important issue is not so much the language of the programming as its relevance to the Hispanic community. “The long lines of people that I saw in Denver waiting to get into La Casa de Dora tour illustrate the connection they have to that program,” he says. “There is real need for programming that has that kind of appeal.”