Insights is a new weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE.
Amid all the media-company maneuvering for position in these merger-mad days, few sectors are as interesting to watch as the big and growing market for Spanish-language content. No one is winning, but lots of new players are jousting with some incumbents for position. All are trying to find that river of gold beckoning from this often underserved market.
Some 50.5 million people self-identified as of Hispanic origin in the 2010 census, nearly 18% of the U.S. population. The numbers, both absolute and as a percentage of the total, have only grown since then. On top of their growing numbers, Latinos use their mobile devices and services more than other demographic groups, so creating digital media for them should be lucrative.
Around 40 million Americans speak Spanish as a first or second language, meaning only Mexico, Colombia, and Spain have more Spanish speakers. Not incidentally, Spanish is spoken by more people around the world than any other Indo-European language. So, in business terms, this is a damned big addressable market.
After what seems unconscionable indifference, lots of companies finally are jumping in to serve this underserved sector. The rush is good to see, but it’s not clear who’s going to build the digital powerhouse for this market. Spanish-language media turns out to also be very complicated, with lots of sub-markets with their own preferences, accents, and sensibilities.
“There’s a misconception when you say Latino, that means one culture. It doesn’t,” says Rich Hull, a Co-Founder and Chairman of the digital service Pongalo. “It’s a lot of cultures under one umbrella. We know content from Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia crosses over (to other Latin American countries) really well. The Spanish they speak there is fairly neutral. On the other hand, Mexicans really like watching films from Mexico, Colombians like watching content from Colombia and so on.”
Hull is not Hispanic. But his partner, CEO Jorge Granier, is and together they’ve undertaken a fairly big task of building a digital powerhouse appealing to Spanish speakers in the United States and around the world. But his company is far from alone at this point. Among the players, both old and new:
- Univision, now owned by several big private-equity firms including one controlled by Haim Saban, who became a billionaire when he sold Fox Family to Disney. Univision’s future has been muddled for months with first sale talks and then a long-pending plan to go public. In the meantime, Univision has made a series of puzzling digital acquisitions among other detours and distractions.
- TV network Telemundo, now tucked away in the Comcast/NBC/Universal empire, has long been second banana to Univision. Never a big operation, it only seems to have shrunk in relevance in recent times. Now the company is chasing younger audiences and moving away from its core telenovela programming with three original series (which, notably, it’s calling “series” instead of “telenovelas”).
- MiTú, one of the early YouTube multi-channel networks and the first with a tight vertical focus on Spanish-language, and now bilingual, content. The company has chosen to stay private despite multiple acquisition offers. The question is whether MiTú has missed its exit window, perhaps because it’s taken enough investment capital (it’s latest round was for $27 million in January 2016) that a sale is impractical. If that’s the case, it’s not clear where the company goes next or if it can get to a sustainable business model.
- Univision and Lionsgate announced plans to launch a subscription movie-streaming service in early 2017. It would hit films such as Instructions Not Included and No Manches Frida, among the properties from Mexican broadcaster Televisa and Pantelion, distributor of some of Mexico’s most popular films ever.
- Early this year, Televisa launched Blim, a subscription-based service and mobile app that is specifically designed as a Mexican competitor to Netflix. It’s available throughout Latin America, and offers exclusive rights to Fox’s Wayward Pines and MGM’s James Bond films, among other content.
- Carlos Slim, Mexico’s telecom king and one of the world’s richest men, launched ClaroVideo, a Blim competitor that now claims more than 1 million subscribers.
- Netflix, building on its success with Narcos, continues to build its Spanish-language holdings, and claims more than 5 million Latin American subscribers, though it will slowly be losing Televisa content as rights expire and those series move to Blim.
- And then there’s Glosi, from Cox Communications, which this year launched a three-month test of a service promising the best in Spanish-language entertainment. But the Glosi site already has posted a notice saying the test is over and the site will shut down March 15.
Univision is a particularly interesting player here. To appeal to younger and more tech-savvy audiences, it started the Fusion network, initially with Disney, but then took complete control. Even with a single owner, the network has never reached a critical mass of Millennials.
Then came a series of head-scratching acquisitions of non-Spanish-language online sites, such as humor site The Onion and $135 million for most of bankruptcy-laden Gawker Media.
Those deals come amid internal battles between Univision’s top executives, a round of layoffs, content disputes with supplier Televisa, and reports that Saban is doing anything he can to dress up the company’s books so he can unload the thing. The company filed paperwork in January saying it wanted to go public, then nothing happened until July, when it filed more paperwork. The IPO still hasn’t happened, but the Gawker deal did. Potential investors have been more than a bit confused as the company continues to drift.
And then there’s Pongalo, renamed this fall after it launched nearly three years ago as Latin Everywhere. Its holdings were originally built on its partnership with Venezuela-based broadcaster RCTV and its rich library of telenovelas and other content. This fall, Pongalo launched a $5.99-per-month subscription video-on-demand service offering 10,000 hours of programming, accessible anywhere in the world. The content includes notable telenovelas such as the one that inspired CW series Jane The Virgin (which Pongalo execs helped produce). The service now also features Spanish-language movies from Revolution (Black Hawk Down, XxX, Maid in Manhattan) as well as an investment from the private-equity company that now owns Revolution.
Hull said he sees the service as a complement rather than competitor to Netflix. Pongalo is trying to be one of that 5 to 7 SVOD services that people typically will pay for in the future.
“We’re not trying to out-Netflix Netflix,” Hull said. “We want to be part of your wallet, not all of your wallet.”
Separately, Pongalo has a sizable YouTube presence, sometimes posting entire shows or films as it continues to experiment with the ad-supported content’s interplay with the new streaming service. That said, the YouTube programming has pulled in nearly 3 billion views, not chicken feed.
All of which suggests a window of opportunity. Will Univision’s new Lionsgate partnership create a big new digital player, or will it be another distraction and source of conflict in what’s becoming a notoriously distracted and conflict-ridden company? Will Comcast/NBC/Universal focus on Telemundo and push it to innovate? Will ClaroVideo or Televisa’s BLIM venture into the United States, especially given the president-elect’s anti-Mexican campaign rhetoric? Can MiTú get to a strong position?
“It’s a moment in time that shouldn’t exist,” Hull says. “The digital market is so underserved, it’s almost disrespectful.”
He’s right. Though I like what Pongalo is doing, it shouldn’t be the only player moving in a serious direction to serve this huge market, in the United States and beyond. At a time of great uncertainty for U.S. relations with the rest of the hemisphere, and for millions of its residents, it would be good to see more ships sailing smoothly toward this river of gold.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE, the premier app building company that houses all of your content in one place for any device, and monetizes it automatically with their built in programmatic video advertising platform.