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Univision’s Bill Clinton–led pitch to advertisers shows why TV isn’t more diverse

Sabado Gigante host Don Francisco is perhaps the Univision personality best known to non-Univision viewers. Here he is attending the network's upfront.
Sabado Gigante host Don Francisco is perhaps the Univision personality best known to non-Univision viewers. Here he is attending the network's upfront.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Univision's upfront presentation — given to ad buyers to convince them to purchase commercial space on the Spanish-language network — featured Bill Clinton.

The former president didn't say anything all that unusual or off-book. He was primarily there to talk about how much he admires the children and grandchildren of immigrants, who work prodigious hours to support their families. He kept bringing up millennials. And he talked about how everybody needs to come together in respectful conversation, even when we disagree, because we get more out of the world when we cooperate than when we're in conflict.

Sounds like pretty standard Bill Clinton stuff, right? So why was he speaking at a presentation for advertisers?

The answer is that Univision wanted the promise of Clinton's appearance to get those advertisers in the door (who better than an ex-president to do that?), and then it wanted Clinton to be its ultimate pitchman. Unlike other broadcast TV networks, Univision doesn't have to convince advertisers to purchase ad time alongside its new programs. No, it has to convince them to purchase ad time on the network, period.

And that's kind of messed up. Because according to some metrics — particularly the ones advertisers care about — and on some nights, Univision is the number-one network in America. So why is it having such a tough time bringing in ad dollars? And what do its struggles say about the future of diversity on TV?

Univision is a huge success among the 18- to 34-year-old audience

Throughout much of the TV season (September through May), Univision is the number-two network on TV in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, and the network's numbers indicate it was actually the number-one network among that audience on 77 nights — or about 21 percent — of the 2014-'15 TV season. And those numbers improve with each year Univision remains on the air.

The rise of Univision is one of the least written about and least reported — yet most important — TV stories of the past decade. The broadcast television model is supposed to be dying, but Univision strongly suggests that it's alive and well in the Latino market, which just happens to be the fastest-growing demographic in the country.

And what's more, Univision viewers are more likely to watch programming live than other broadcast network audiences. The network says 91 percent of its viewers watch its content live. Its closest competitor, NBC, sees only 56 percent live viewing, and that's with a substantial boost from the NFL.

In theory, then, Univision should be a perfect fit for advertisers, who are notoriously leery about relying on DVR viewership. But the network's upfront presentation frequently gave off the air of being a hard sell, at least when it wasn't attempting to explain to those in attendance what, say, the preeminent Mexican soccer league was. (Univision also thinks its ratings for an important soccer competition this summer are going to outdo the World Cup. With 32 games, all of them scheduled to air live in primetime, they just might.)

Univision can share all the dumbfounding stats it wants. It can do as well in the Nielsen ratings as possible. But its greatest problem is always going to be overcoming structural biases in the way TV sells ad time.

The rise of demographics

In the 1980s, television advertisers started paying attention to viewership demographics in earnest. Shows like the beleaguered hospital drama St. Elsewhere stayed on the air in part because they commanded a larger proportion of younger viewers. That trend continued in the '90s and reached its peak in the 2000s.

One of the clear effects has been that networks chase the demographics that advertisers find most valuable. That's why we hear so much about the 18- to 49-year-old demographic. These viewers are theoretically less loyal to any particular brand and more willing to try something new. Obviously, that's of interest to advertisers.

But advertisers also want to attract as rich of an audience as possible. Upper-class viewers carry a premium, and a significant number of them can save a low-rated show from cancellation. CBS is fond of bragging about The Good Wife's "upscale" audience, for instance.

But this has hurt diversity on TV

While there are a host of reasons for TV's struggle to diversify, advertising is one of the major ones. Programmers believe that tastemakers in desirable demographics want to watch shows about people who are just like them — which is why there have been so many shows about young, single, white people who don't seem to worry much about money. The networks will take a ding from the press about diversity if they can attract viewers who look just like the characters onscreen (and will hopefully buy the products advertised).

Maybe that's why Univision brought in Clinton give ad buyers the hard sell. If he couldn't rouse their social consciences, however, the network also wanted to point out success stories from companies that specifically targeted Latino audiences. JCPenney, for example, saw success via targeting Latina women, Univision said, before citing other companies like Nissan and Papa John's, which boasted significant growth among Latinos in particular.

It's the same marketing speak you'd hear from any network at its upfront presentation. But at Univision, it has an added feeling of desire to be noticed by someone, anyone. (The network says 13 of the top 50 advertising brands in America don't buy ad time on it at all.) That such a successful network has to make such a forthright pitch for its existence to be acknowledged is a good indicator of why diversity has had such trouble gaining a foothold in American television.

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