HBO-Cinemax Experiment in Bilingual TV

Times Staff Writer

When Julio Cesar Chavez steps into the ring at the Forum in Inglewood to battle Roger Mayweather for his World Boxing Council junior welterweight title May 13, HBO won’t just be televising a championship fight.

The bout also will be offered to the pay-TV channel’s subscribers with a choice of Spanish or English ringside narration--part of a new push that HBO and its sister cable channel Cinemax are making in May to offer their “Selecciones en Espanol” (“Spanish Selections”) simulcasting service to their 12,400 affiliates nationwide.

HBO and Cinemax officials expect attractions such as the Chavez-Mayweather fight to persuade as many as 500 of their affiliates that have more than 20% Latino subscribers to request the free enhancement, which allows viewers with specially equipped TV sets to watch a program in English or Spanish by merely pressing a button.


Each network plans to boost the number of programs it offers in both English and Spanish--in the case of movies, from about five titles a month to more than a dozen. The May fare includes “The Killing Fields” and “Empire of the Sun.”

The Time Inc. subsidiaries’ attempt to build Latino subscriber loyalty with simulcasting is just one of many technical and programming innovations that English- and Spanish-language stations and networks are generating in response to the growing Latino market. Both NBC and CBS, for example, have conducted small-scale simulcasting experiments in recent years. But no other local English-language broadcaster or network has come close to what HBO and Cinemax are planning.

“We applaud what they’re doing,” said Starrett Berry, vice president and general manager of Galavision, a Spanish-language cable network with more than 300 affiliates nationwide. “These are not small budgets, so this is a big first step. No other (English-language) broadcaster is doing anything like this.”

Neil Pinnella, HBO’s vice president of business affairs, predicts that “Selecciones” will surpass “La Bamba,” one of Hollywood’s most profitable Latino-themed and Spanish-dubbed films, as a milestone special-marketing event.

“I think this is more significant than ‘La Bamba,’ ” Pinnella said. “ ‘La Bamba’ was a sign post. It was like with Columbus saying there was land over there. But we are the first settlers, the first to do something on an active, on-going basis.”

HBO announced its plans for “Selecciones” last September, then launched the service in January, when HBO and Cinemax offered simulcasting service to 20 cable operators in five big cities, including Los Angeles.


Within weeks of simulcasting films such as “Dragnet” and “La Bamba,” however, an additional 35 cable firms began clamoring for the service, Lara said. Since then, both cable services have provided the service to another 15 of their affiliates.

Still, even as “Selecciones” suggests a blurring of the boundaries between English- and Spanish-language TV and an increase in the rate at which Hollywood dubs its movies, HBO critics and competitors say the cable company must overcome several marketing and technological barriers before proving simulcasting’s long-term viability.

Galavision’s Berry, for example, questions whether simulcasting will attract enough new subscribers to HBO and Cinemax affiliates, given the lackluster response Galavision got when it aired several Spanish-dubbed Warner Bros. releases in 1981.

“I wonder how many people beyond what they already have will pick up the service,” he said, “or is this a move to develop long-term loyalty (among the Latino subscribers they already have)?”

The answer, said Alan M. Levy, HBO’s director of corporate relations, is a bit of both, with emphasis on the latter.

“The (simulcasting) option helps cable operators build an enormous amount of community good will,” Levy said. “So its benefits may not directly lead to a new bulge in subscriptions, but it will generate some new subscribers.”

The U.S. Latino population, according to HBO research, is currently estimated at 25 million and growing nearly five times faster than the general population. About 47% of Latinos use Spanish as their primary language, according to the research. Another growth indicator, a recent Strategy Research Corp. study claims, is the relatively low level of Latino households wired for cable--only 31%, compared to 53% for non-Latino households.

Leobardo Estrada, a noted demographer and associate professor in UCLA’s school of Urban Planning and Architecture, pointed to another hurdle to marketing “Selecciones” nationwide--technology. So far, he said, there is no standard technology for transmitting programs in two languages.

Among the first 35 cable operators carrying “Selecciones,” Estrada said, some have found it easier to simulcast over FM stereo radio stations, while others prefer special tuners that viewers can wire to their sets to receive a Spanish sound track. And there are still other methods.

Concepcion Lara, HBO’s director of new business development, said the lack of standardized technology is a temporary problem that the purchase of stereo TV sets will eventually resolve when the new technology becomes universally adopted. Subscribers who own stereo TV sets with a second audio program channel and subscribe to a cable company that offers the simulcasting service need only flick a switch or button to get a Spanish audio track.

“It seems that a new (product) feature needs to hit 12% of (national) sales for it to eventually become standard equipment,” Lara said. “We hit that point in ’86 and quickly passed it. Last year, stereo TV sets represented 35% of all new TV sales. Sooner or later, there’ll be stereo TV sets in every home.”

Still, some officials at Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language network, cite the example of CBS’ simulcasting experiment with the low-rated Latino sitcom “Trial and Error” as evidence of English-language TV’s simulcasting failures.

But Lara said that the experience of independent stations such as KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles indicates otherwise. Although the major ratings services do not yet measure whether viewers have switched on their simulcasting channels, KTLA claims that it has maintained its “News at 10” as the top-rated news in its time slot partly because of simulcasting.

“Do you think it’s a coincidence that Galavision and Univision have made major (movie) programming changes since our (September) announcement?” Lara asked.

In February, Univision aired two Academy Award winners for best foreign picture, “Volver a Empezar” (“To Begin Again”) and “La Historia Oficial” (“The Official Story”), with English subtitles. Network officials have also indicated their desire to continue airing award-caliber films on a regular basis.

Rosita Peru, Univision’s vice president of programing, contends that counter-programming wasn’t the motive for airing films with English subtitles. Instead, she said, she has wanted to upgrade her movie roster ever since the station group was acquired two years ago by an investors group headed by Hallmark Cards Inc.