Spanish-Language TV Needs Latino Americans' Input

Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer

The local Latino community is in an uproar over the prospect that Los Angeles' oldest Spanish-language television station may lose its broadcasting license. But the Federal Communications Commission ruling against KMEX-TV is not necessarily as bad as it seems; in fact, it could benefit the station, its parent network and Latino viewers across the United States.

KMEX is one of 13 stations, all affiliates of the Spanish International Network, found to be under illegal foreign control. By law, foreigners cannot own more than 20% of any U.S. broadcasting license. The FCC found that the 13 stations and SIN are controlled, through a complex series of legal and personal arrangements, by Mexican media magnate Emilio Azcarraga. Using remarkably strong language, FCC Judge John H. Conlin wrote that the U.S. citizens who run SIN, like network president Rene Anselmo and KMEX general manager Danny Villanueva, are nothing more than "fronts" for Azcarraga.

That finding should surprise no one. Communications specialists, including Felix Gutierrez of USC's School of Journalism, have written for years about Azcarraga's U.S. gold mine. They even predicted that it was unlikely to stand up to close scrutiny by the FCC and other legal authorities. (Coincidentally, as the FCC ruling was handed down in Washington, a lawsuit against SIN was nearing its conclusion in Los Angeles. In that suit, network stockholders accuse Anselmo of undermining their investment through a cozy but unprofitable programming arrangement with Azcarraga.)

Immediately after the FCC ruling was announced, supporters of the network rallied to its defense. They praised it for supporting worthy community efforts like voter registration, and pointed to the many local and national telethons that it has broadcast to raise money for Latino causes. They also noted the vital role that the network plays in providing a communications link for a community that is largely ignored by the English-language media, and expressed fear that the ruling might increase non-Latino control over the network.

Each of those points has merit, but KMEX's supporters should know that the station isn't going to disappear tomorrow. An FCC decision can be appealed through the courts--a process that could take years. In the meantime, it is unlikely that much will change at SIN. In other words, things are not as bad as they seem. And SIN may not be as good as it seems.

There are many thoughtful Latinos in this country who think that the network could do a far better job than it does. Most of the entertainment programming that the network gets from Mexico is no better, and often much worse, than the sophomoric pap televised by ABC, NBC and CBS.

As for community involvement, Christmas telethons to help poor families in the barrio are wonderful. But it would be nice, too, if local news operations at stations like KMEX had bigger budgets. Then they could report all year long on the causes of that poverty, like school dropouts, and the consequences, like gang violence.

KMEX does broadcast more than two hours of news each day. But 50 minutes, in prime time every night, are devoted to "24 Horas," a news show produced in Mexico City that most observers agree is slanted toward the Mexican government. That seems to support the FCC's argument about the danger of foreign influence over U.S. broadcasting.

Of course, it can be argued that a Mexican capitalist like Azcarraga poses no more threat to the United States than Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch does when he buys up properties here. But Murdoch had to become a U.S. citizen in order to purchase several TV stations, including KTTV in Los Angeles, last year. The law on foreign ownership draws no distinction among nationalities; Azcarraga may simply want to make money, but how would a Castro or a Kadafi or a Marcos use 21% interest in a U.S. network?

So the FCC ruling is probably valid, and likely to be upheld. If Azcarraga, Anselmo and the other heads of SIN are smart, they will try to figure out a reorganization plan that will satisfy the FCC by scaling back Mexican influence. One tactic might be to find U.S. Latinos willing to invest in SIN.

When SIN was first set up, in the 1960s, the Latino community in this country simply did not have the resources to create and support a major broadcasting network on its own. That is not the case now. There is no major city with an SIN outlet--they include New York, Miami, San Antonio, San Francisco and Phoenix as well as Los Angeles--where the network's current owners won't find prosperous Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans willing and able to buy a share of the network. These are, after all, some of the people whose buying power has made SIN an increasingly attractive advertising medium over the years.

If SIN officials really believe that their network is a community resource, and if they really want to keep it alive, they will forget about fighting the FCC and start recruiting Latino investors in this country.

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