A Question of Quality

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Luis Silberwasser has been at Discovery Networks since 1998 in a variety of business development, marketing and sales roles. He is currently senior vice president and general manager for Discovery U.S. Hispanic networks. In that capacity he oversaw last year’s launch of Discovery Kids en Español and the women’s cable network Viajar y Vivir. Silberwasser also runs Discovery en Español. Silberwasser recently spoke with Multichannel News contributor Luis Clemens. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: You speak often of the importance of offering high-quality programming but there are some very poor-quality shows on Spanish-language broadcast networks garnering very large audiences. Are you confident there is a demand for high-quality programming?

Luis Silberwasser: I am. That is demonstrated first of all by our internal research. We know and are convinced that there is a demand for high-quality content. The problem has been that it hasn’t been available.

The audience gravitates to what is available. In our mind and in our strategy, it is very clear that high-quality factual TV that runs the gamut from traditional documentary to natural history to cars will have high appeal in the Hispanic market. And we are seeing it today with the success of Discovery en Español. Since we started to improve the programming we’ve seen our ratings go up. We are up more than 60% against a year ago.

MCN: The number of children aged 2 to 11 watching telenovelas on a nightly basis is very high. What do you make of that? Is it simply the lack of options for children of that age in that time slot?

LS: When you look at Spanish programming for kids, there isn’t the amount of options that you have on the English side. So when it comes to primetime, the choices are basically novelas and talk shows. The family dynamic is that kids are watching with their parents. Hispanic homes don’t have as many television sets in different rooms so they have to congregate around fewer television sets, so the programming choices are less. The adults want to watch the novellas, so the kids are there watching with them.

MCN: What do you make of the offer of bilingual programming on kids cable networks? How do you go about competing against Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go!?

LS: I think it is great. I think it is great that programs like Dora and Maya & Miguel exist and that these experiments are going on right now. It shows the fact that kids in the U.S. today are able to enjoy those bilingual programs. And that is one approach to kids programming.

We believe that approach is a valid approach. We also believe that a Spanish-only approach for younger kids is very valid too. For Hispanic families, we want our kids to be able to speak Spanish. Watching television in Spanish is a good way to train the ear. The market is big enough so that we can have side-by-side a bilingual option, a Spanish option and an English option.

MCN: Research indicates that Spanish-language proficiency declines when you hit the second and third generations. Yet, there is also research indicating a significant interest among foreign and U.S.-born Latinos to teach their children Spanish. How do you reconcile the two?

LS: I see it in my family. I think it is a little bit the fact that you don’t want to lose your roots. The U.S. is a melting pot and people who come here have to be able to live in both worlds. At the same time, they don’t want to completely cross the line and they want to retain their culture. And language is one of those things that keeps the culture intact or at least alive.

When we get to be in our 30s and 40s and start having kids we want our kids to feel and experience the same things we felt when we were growing up. You are right the research indicates both things. You become more acculturated as you stay longer in this country. At the same time, there is a return to your roots and an effort to keep the roots and the heritage alive.

MCN: How is it that in some heavily Hispanic cities they don’t put Spanish-language kids programming on basic?

LS: Good question. I think that applies not only for kids but for Spanish-language programming in general. In some of the heavily Hispanic markets I think there is an argument for having a bigger package of Spanish-language channels on basic and not only kids but everything. The fact that the strategy of the distributors has been to keep Spanish-language programming in a tier I think has also limited the growth and the appeal of these networks to the majority of the population.

MCN: Is there a way to compete against the broadcast networks when it comes to women’s programming? Is there definitely a Spanish-language women’s cable market out there?

LS: I think there is. The Spanish broadcasters are strong and they have great programming, but women have little options in terms of programming. They have talk shows and novelas. There is very little of other types of programming, which doesn’t mean they don’t want it. It doesn’t mean we are going to replace the novelas completely.

That is not why we are doing this, but there is going to be a segment of the population that will alternate between watching their regular fare and watching high-quality factual television directed to Hispanic women today. Broadcast is strong and is going to continue to be strong, but can we compete? Absolutely.