Updated: 4:38 p.m.
In the steamy world of Spanish soap operas, a plot about the U.S. Census may seem out of place.
But that’s just the sort of programming Hispanic media companies hope will drive millions of Latinos to the polls this fall. While their English counterparts shy away from direct advocacy, Spanish-language media executives say it is central to their mission.
“Empowering the Latino community is part of our DNA,” Cesar Conde, president of Univision Networks, said in an email to Roll Call.
Univision, the nation’s top Spanish-language network, and its NBC-owned rival, Telemundo, have both launched separate get-out-the-vote efforts ahead of this fall’s elections to capitalize on their broad reach into Hispanic households and to mobilize viewers.
Last month, Univision partnered with Hispanic advocacy groups and smaller media outlets in a campaign called “Ya Es Hora,” or “It Is Time,” to broadcast information on how to register to vote, comprehensive campaign coverage and news segments on issues such as immigration and jobs.
A similar campaign ahead of the 2008 elections helped naturalize more than 1.4 million people, according to the network.
Telemundo launched its own campaign with advocacy groups in November, called “Vota por Tu Futuro,” or “Vote for Your Future,” and has even worked political plots into its steamy soap operas. One love story featured a subplot with a census worker who dispelled other characters’ misconceptions about the government count.
"Telemundo has both the opportunity and the responsibility to empower the Hispanic community and engage them in the political process by inviting them to register to vote," station spokesman Alfredo Richard said in a statement.
Like the soap opera character, many of the stations’ GOTV efforts go beyond public service announcements. Univision plans to have talk-show hosts discuss the elections, programming that discusses how to vote on Election Day and debates with politicians. The station will also direct viewers to its advocacy partners in the campaign for further guidance.
Both Spanish-language networks have embraced voter advocacy as part of their missions, setting them apart from their mainstream English counterparts. Some English networks, such as MTV, have participated in voter outreach, but not to the same extent.
“They very much advocate for political participation. That’s really unique,” said Leslie Sanchez, head of the communications research firm Impacto Group. The former George W. Bush administration official consults businesses on Hispanic media.
According to Sanchez, that advocacy approach resembles the way media outlets in Latin Ameica operate. Spanish-language channels have long served as a cultural link for recent immigrants and American-born Latinos alike. Even as more Latinos are born in the U.S. and turn to English sources for news and entertainment, Sanchez said, Spanish-language media has remained a part of the community.
“It served as a community builder, and that is a tenet of Spanish-language media that continues today,” she said.
Univision and Telemundo both reach more than 90 percent of Hispanic households, giving them access to a much-coveted bloc of swing voters. President Barack Obama has appeared on the networks, as have various Republican presidential candidates.
The Republican and Democratic national committees have hired press secretaries to work closely with Spanish-language media to tap into that audience.
About 600,000 Latinos reach voting age each year, and the popularity of Spanish-language media appears to be growing with the community. In the past two years, Univision was the only major American network to grow its average prime-time audience among 18- to 49-year-olds, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
A reported deal between Univision and Disney to launch an English-language channel targeting Hispanics could broaden the network’s reach to non-Spanish speakers in the community. Univision’s Conde declined to comment on the deal, calling it a rumor.
Despite rapid population growth, Latinos are underrepresented in the electorate. An estimated 8 million who could vote this year are not registered to do so, according to Latino Decisions, which tracks the community.
Voting advocates say Hispanic media present a way to reach those individuals who are not politically engaged.
“You’re reaching an audience that isn’t picking up the morning paper or heading home to watch the news,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, a voter advocacy group.
Democrats have the advantage as more Latinos register to vote, according to historical voting patterns. Pew Hispanic Center Associate Director Mark Hugo Lopez said Hispanic citizens are twice as likely to register as Democrats than as Republicans.
Univision and Telemundo have been increasingly careful not to let the community’s leanings skew its coverage. Univision operates a company PAC that gives more to Democrats than Republicans, but Conde said the company is deliberately neutral in its programming.
The networks do face a challenge in remaining objective on immigration, an issue that directly affects many of their viewers and staff.
Some leading television and radio personalities have become immigration activists. Los Angeles radio personality Eddie “El Piolín” Sotelo led a letter-writing campaign to Congress on immigration reform in 2007, delivering more than 1 million signatures to Capitol Hill.
The networks have tried to maintain more balance. This week, Univision’s popular Sunday morning talk show, “Al Punto,” featured Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who backs Arizona’s strict immigration enforcement law.
“They have gone to great lengths to make sure both sides of the issues are represented, even though the constituency that they have as viewers is overwhelmingly for one side of the issue,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, a director for the National Council of La Raza, which favors comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for millions of illegal residents.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, one of Univision’s “Ya Es Hora” partners, said the campaign is deliberately neutral on policy issues. The point is to simply mobilize voters.
“We don’t say, ‘Make your voice be heard for immigration reform.’ We just say, ‘Make your voice be heard,’ and people get it,” Vargas said. “If they want to affect decisions that affect their lives, they have got to go out and be heard.”