Comcast Corp. is targeting Spanish speakers and immigrants with about 140 new ethnic TV channels, a major move into that market for the cable giant.
The company says it wants to compete with satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network for ethnic viewers looking for programming in their native languages or from their home countries.
"We've been licensing product like mad," said David Jensen, Comcast's vice president for content acquisition. "For a long time, Charlie [Dish Network chief Charles Ergen] owned ethnic TV because of a bandwidth efficiency that cable couldn't compete with."
That shortage of bandwidth, or space, for new channels is no longer a problem; Comcast is converting its cable system to digital technology from analog.
In the process, Comcast's channel-carrying capacity is zooming to about 1,116 standard digital channels from 116 analog channels, experts say. The new capacity, Comcast executives say, will be used for faster Internet speeds, high-definition channels, and ethnic programming.
Comcast has retained top Hispanic ad agency Grupo Gallegos, of Long Beach, Calif., and is advertising its Hispanic packages on Univision, a leading Spanish-language TV programmer.
"When we go after this market, we will beat them on channels. Check. We will beat them with On Demand. Check. And we will beat them with the Triple Play. Check," said Derek Harrar, senior vice president and general manager of video and entertainment services at Comcast.
Ethnic channels will be packaged in a Triple Play bundle of TV, phone, and Internet services that satellite companies cannot match because they do not offer Internet and phone, Comcast said.
Not so fast, said John de Armas, vice president of international programming for DirecTV.
"We will protect our position with everything we've got," de Armas said in a phone interview. "You have got to have really deep roots here and understand the nuances" of the ethnic-TV market.
DirecTV has channels beamed from 18 Latin American countries, he said. It markets its Hispanic channels as DirecTV Mas.
Comcast will not easily find exclusive programming, de Armas said, because "we've locked down anything of value and anything that is worth watching."
DirecTV has been growing rapidly and is approaching 20 million subscribers, while Comcast has been losing subscribers. (It has about 24 million.)
Chris Kuelling, vice president of international programming at Dish Network, the second-largest satellite company, said it was expanding its ethnic programming. It began in two languages and now offers programming in 28.
Philadelphia-area Comcast customers will not see the new ethnic packages for about six months. That's because the digital switch is happening at different times in different markets.
Locally, the switch will take place through late summer; the ethnic channels will be announced on its completion.
Not all cities will be offered the same ethnic channels. Instead, offerings will reflect the local immigrant populations and will be sold as packages - a Russian package, for example, or a South Asian package. Comcast has not disclosed which ethnic channels will be available in this region or what the package composition will be.
In Chicago, which has switched to digital, Comcast offers 60 Hispanic channels and several Polish channels.
A week ago, Comcast announced San Francisco channels in Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Greek, German, and Hindi.
Comcast's Jensen said a variety of ethnic programming was available for licensing.
One relatively new channel is Mexicanal. Launched five years ago by Luis Torres-Bohl, it targets Mexican immigrants by rerunning local TV news from 13 Mexican states.
Big Mexican media companies are based in Mexico City, but many Mexican immigrants were raised outside that area, Torres-Bohl said.
He used information on where Mexican workers in the United States sent their money to sign deals with TV stations in those locations.
"If somebody provides you news about your family, you will be checking them all the time," Torres-Bohl said.
"If you like your family."
Comcast has licensed about 140 ethnic channels. A selection:
TV Globo (Portuguese/Brazilian)
Band Internacional (Portuguese/Brazilian)
Star One (Hindi)
Star Vijay (Tamil)
Antenna One (Greek)
Deutsche Welle (German)