Univision’s history of racism and colorism may not bode well for TheRoot | All Digitocracy
TV Network’s history of racism and colorism may not bode well for website formerly owned by The Washington Post Company
By Jillian Báez
Two weeks ago Spanish-language television giant Univision announced its acquisition of TheRoot.com, one of the top African American news websites. Coverage of the merger was quite celebratory and echoed co-founder Henry Louis Gates’ statement that “This bold new partnership between Univision and TheRoot underscores the ties that have long bound people of color together throughout the Western Hemisphere and is a sign of even greater levels of communication, collaboration and exchange between these culturally vital groups of people.”
But while Gates is obviously optimistic about the venture, I’m a little skeptical. Univision has some issues that no one has talked about that might impact things. For one thing, it’s digital presence, Fusion, is struggling to get traffic to its own website. Secondly, the parent company’s history as a serial consolidator and nasty habit of broadcasting racist content makes me cautious about this venture.
Univision is the largest Spanish-language television network in the U.S. and the fifth largest network overall. A look into Univision’s history helps to make sense of the network’s acquisition of The Root. Univision emerged from a consolidation of Mexican tycoon Emilio Azcárraga’s Spanish International Network (SIN) and the Spanish International Broadcasting Corporation in 1987. Hallmark purchased Univision in 1988 and sold the network to entrepreneur Jerrold Perenchio, owner of Mexico’s Televisa, and Venezuela’s Venevisión. In 2006, Broadcasting Media Partners acquired Univision. Currently, Univision owns the television networks UniMás and Galavision as well as Univision Radio. In 2012, Univision acquired Bounce TV, the second-most watched network among African Americans with 90 million homes, as its first foray into African American content. While the channel, which was co-founded by Martin Luther King III, son of the Civil Rights icon, has historically offered reruns of sitcoms from the 80s and 90s sitcoms that can also be found on cable networks like BET and TVOne, BounceTV has introduced two new original sitcoms and will debut its first hour long drama series in 2016.
In 2013, in partnership with Disney and ABC News, Univision launched Fusion, a cable network geared toward millenials. But success among this demographic has proved elusive for the network.
“The reality, since Fusion began in October 2013, has been more complex,” Ravi Somaiya and Brooks Barnes for The New York Times. “Many inside and outside the company are hard pressed to define what exactly Fusion does. Traffic to its website has been anemic at times, and it has yet to deliver the kind of attention-getting stories that digital media rivals like Buzzfeed and Vice have produced.”
Perhaps that has more to do with Univision’s history of consolidation and conglomeration rather than innovation.
For example, in response to critiques that the network had a lack of content for bilingual Latinos born in the U.S., Univision created The Flama, a bilingual website for second and third generation Latinos in 2013. On television, however, Univision still heavily relies on imported programming from Mexican network Televisa. It is also still struggling to attract non-immigrant Latino audiences, even with the advent of Fusion.
TheRoot has a very different mandate as a news website than Univision has as a transnational media conglomerate. It’s not only that The Root and Univision target different audiences, they also operate within different scopes. Whereas large media companies are primarily driven by profits, smaller outlets like TheRoot are usually more concerned with covering issues not visible in the mainstream media. At least that was the case for TheRoot when The Washington Post owned it.
While the management of The Root maintains that it will still have editorial control, it is possible that Univision will exert some influence over the tone and tenor of the site. It is also doubtful that The Root and Univision will create content that will foster conversations between the African American and Latino communities. As of now, for example, Univision’s acquisition of Bounce TV has not influenced programming on either network. Instead of creating coalitions between African American and Latino communities, the acquisition has proven to be more of a move towards aggregating growing and lucrative niche markets for increased profits. More of the same is probably what we can expect with the purchase of TheRoot.
The merger between Univision and TheRoot should not be divorced from recent criticism the network received in response to a host commenting that Michelle Obama looked like “something from the cast of the Planet of the Apes.” While Univision fired the host shortly after the incident, it received mainstream media attention and spotlighted the network’s long track record of racist content. At best, indigenous-looking and black Latinos are relegated to buffoon or servant roles in telenovelas and at worst they are invisible on Univision’s other programming. In 2010, Univision issued an apology after airing a Despierta America segment about South Africa winning the 2014 World Cup that featured the cast of the morning show dancing in Afro wigs while holding spears. During the network’s World Cup 2014 coverage, Univision commentators were criticized for making racist remarks about black players during the games. While the network didn’t make a formal apology, it did agree to look further into the issue and its on-air practices. It is also problematic that many of the network’s on-air talent are white-skinned Latinos and that dark-skinned Hispanics are rarely seen on-camera.
It is also worth noting that Univision’s CEO, Randy Falco, is a white Anglo man who does not speak Spanish. Univision’s purchase of TheRoot might be part of the network’s efforts to be more racially inclusive, but we shouldn’t forget that ownership is key. In a media system where only a very few own access to producing and distributing media content, I am hesitant to celebrate yet another merger.
Jillian Báez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island-CUNY. Follow her on Twitter at @JillianBaez.