MIAMI—In a cavernous television studio in an office park far from downtown, Cesar Conde fumbled at the teleprompter. The 37-year-old wunderkind and brains behind Univision, the nation’s preeminent Spanish-language television network, is not normally an on-air personality. In a dark suit, white shirt, and red tie, he dresses more like a politician than a star. But on a springtime afternoon, before an audience of producers, cameramen, and policy wonks, Conde was introducing a three-part public-service program on the future of education. His short, impassioned speech in Spanish spoke of the consequential role that Latinos could play in the United States if they armed themselves with diplomas.
After the taping, Conde air-kissed a producer, nodded good-bye to the crew, and quickly exited the studio into the hallway. Before he rushed off to his next meeting, though, he couldn’t help but express his earnestness about the role he wants Univision to play in the new, emerging economy. “It’s our responsibility to help connect viewers with resources,” he said. “We believe in our core responsibility of empowering Hispanics.”
Ordinarily, Univision seems too slick a media company to concern itself with “empowerment.” This April, the network surpassed both NBC and CBS in weekly primetime ratings with adults ages 18 to 34. Its steamy telenovelas regularly occupy the top 10 rankings of the most popular primetime Spanish-language programs, according to the Nielsen ratings. And, in the past two years, Univision’s digital team has created 70 websites for local radio and TV affiliates while also experimenting with new digital forms of entertainment, such as soap operas made expressly to be viewed on mobile phones.
Conde’s ambitions for the network seem decidedly American: He hopes to increase revenue, grab more market share, and crush his competitors. “We believe Univision can be the top TV network regardless of language,” he explained while sitting in his utilitarian office. His plans include a political role for Univision in running public-service programs, sponsoring voter-registration drives, and hosting presidential debates for the 2012 election.
Yet Conde doesn’t envision Univision as simply another American network, one that mimics CNN or CBS. He has a defined audience in mind. There’s a certain diversity among viewers born in Mexico, elsewhere in Central America, in South America, or in the United States. But they’re united by language and culture. The network has thrived by catering to Spanish speakers rather than worrying about the broader society’s whims. “Our laser-like focus is U.S. Hispanics,” he declared. “The census results show we are 50 million strong and exponentially growing.”
Get used to this: Univision’s success may presage America’s economic future. The nation’s demographic future, for sure. By 2042, demographers at the Census Bureau predict, racial and ethnic minorities will make up more than half of the U.S. population. Roughly 30 percent will consider themselves Hispanic, nearly twice the 16 percent in 2010. The number of Asians living in the United States is also expected to double, while that of people who identify themselves as multiracial more than triples. Meantime, the non-Hispanic white demographic will grow older on average, and its projected share of the population will decline from 64 percent in 2010 to 46 percent in 2050. The proportion of non-Hispanic youngsters who are white is expected to plunge from 54 percent to 38 percent.
Univision’s future faces an even deeper threat: assimilation.
William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer, speaks of the “pivotal decade” to come, as the definition of being a minority in this demographically evolving nation may drastically change. In certain parts of the country, he said, such as Arizona and the Southeast, demographers—and residents—may find it hard even to identify the minority population. Will Caucasians be considered the new minority, or will the term “minority” refer to socioeconomic class instead of to ethnicity or race? “At some time in the future,” Frey suggested, “the term ‘minority’ could become obsolete.”
Welcome to the United States as a “world nation.” Inevitably, these demographic shifts will influence the sensibility, color, and culture—indeed, what constitutes the mainstream—of the United States. “In the past, we thought of assimilation as conforming to a core of WASPs,” Frey noted. “There will be assimilation to an American lifestyle, but that lifestyle will not be the one we thought of in the past.”
Instead, your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses will represent a culturally distinct and growing market—or series of submarkets—to which businesses would be wise to pay heed. “Companies have realized their bread and butter—the traditional, white, Middle American household—has gone away with Ozzie and Harriet,” said Rohit Deshpandé, a marketing professor at the Harvard Business School.
This article appears in the June 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.