The soap opera “Más Sabe el Diablo” featured the 2010 census.
On the set, Michelle Vargas, an actress; Don Browne, Telemundo’s president; and Aurelio Valcarcel, an executive producer.
September 23, 2009
U.S. Census Uses Telenovela to Reach Hispanics
By BRIAN STELTER
MIAMI — Perla Beltrán, a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks in New York, has suffered a great deal lately — her husband, a thief, has been murdered and she has been associating with lowlifes. But she thinks she has found a way out: as a recruiter for the United States Census Bureau.
Ms. Beltrán, a character in the popular Spanish-language soap opera “Más Sabe el Diablo,” “The Devil Knows Best,” represents only one element of the government’s yearlong effort to garner trust among Hispanics, an ethnic group that has been historically wary of the decennial census process.
In addition to the typical public service announcements and advertisements, the Census Bureau is helping to compose a remarkable story line featuring the Perla Beltrán character on the telenovela, amid the genre’s usual tales of sex scandals, unspeakable illnesses and implausible villains. It may be the first plotline on a soap opera blessed by the United States government.
“It’s the perfect vehicle for product placement,” said Patricia Gaitan, a communications consultant for the bureau, as she watched the taping here last week. She swiftly gave the technique a new name: “people placement.”
The coordination between the Census Bureau and the “Diablo” producers at the Telemundo network also strikes some as an unusual intrusion by the government. Although a bureau staff member met with the writer of “Diablo” and provided props for the production, the network’s president, Don Browne, said it maintained “total creative independence.”
Many Americans are unfamiliar with telenovelas like “Diablo,” and most efforts to introduce them to English-speaking audiences have flopped. But among Spanish-speaking viewers, the five-nights-a-week dramas are enormously popular, making them a prime way to encourage Hispanics to be counted next year.
“We’ve been evangelizing,” Mr. Browne told Ms. Gaitan and other visitors between takes on the set last week. “Hopefully, we’ll get the message across without hitting viewers over the head.”
The message is the same one Census Bureau officials are trying to emphasize at nearly every turn: Do not be afraid to be counted.
Next year’s census is expected to show a substantial increase in the Hispanic population, which is already the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. The government estimated in May that 46.9 million Hispanics lived in the Unites States last year, up from about 33 million during the last census in 2000. Census figures are analyzed to apportion Congressional districts and distribute about $400 billion in federal money each year.
But the census is a delicate subject for some minorities, including Hispanics. Language barriers and fear of filling out forms for the government limited participation in earlier counts.
Census officials contend that Hispanics were undercounted in 2000 by about 0.7 percent, or roughly a quarter of a million people. Other scientific studies assert that as many as 1.3 million Hispanics were not counted.
With the census story line, “we’re trying to fight the fear,“ Aurelio Valcarcel, an executive producer at Telemundo Studios, said.
The campaign is not merely about civic participation. Next year’s count is likely to mean more advertising revenue for Telemundo, a unit of NBC Universal, and other Spanish-language networks over time. Nielsen Ratings sample of television households is directly tied to the census results.
“It’s very good for our business,” Mr. Browne said in an interview, given that the census numbers should help substantiate audience growth.
With the enduring debates over immigration, some people are wary of giving their name, address and information about their household to the government. “In some cases they’re trying to hide from the government,” said Stacy Gimbel, a bureau spokeswoman who observed the taping. “We’re trying to convince them that their information is safe.”
Next year, in a first for the bureau, about 13 million households will receive census questionnaires in English and Spanish. But other issues compound the bureau’s challenge in trying to achieve a comprehensive count.
Some advocates warn that the recession has forced more families to share a single residence, sometimes in violation of housing codes or leases. Those families may be reluctant to provide information, said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Some Hispanic religious leaders are urging their congregations to boycott the count, which will begin next spring, as a way of forcing Congress to act on immigration reform. Most Hispanic advocacy groups oppose such a move.
Telemundo is taking a stand in favor of the census, though it says it covers other points of view in its news programs. Mr. Vargas said Telemundo and Univision, the country’s dominant Spanish-language network, which is conducting a public service campaign of its own, were being “good corporate citizens.”
Telemundo producers started considering a census plot in the spring at the start of the network’s yearlong campaign to increase census participation. Eventually a census employee worked directly with the writer of “Diablo.”
In an episode that will be shown in early October, Ms. Beltrán is selling empanadas, stuffed pastries, on the street when a Census Bureau employee approaches her. The ensuing conversation amounts to Census 101, explaining why the count matters.
Soon Ms. Beltrán, who is played by Michelle Vargas, will become a census worker. At the Telemundo Studios last week, Ms. Beltrán was shown completing a skills test for her census job application. After handing in the test, she asks about the census, and the test administrator tells her that the information collected is “estrictamente confidencial,” or strictly confidential.
Mr. Valcarcel said previous novelas had included social messages about drug abuse and workplace violence. Working with a government agency, though, is a new strategy. He said he wanted the census information to feel as organic as possible. “I don’t want to feel like it’s a Discovery Channel documentary,” he said.
Ms. Gaitan and other consultants smiled as they watched the taping and spotted census pamphlets and logos on the set. “Do you see all the brochures?” one of the marketers asked.
“Diablo” ends its run next February. While the network has not determined if it will add census plots to any other telenovelas, Mr. Browne said that another contemporary series was in the works that would “lend itself to this.”
For more traditional forms of communication, the government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for census community outreach, part of which will be devoted to Spanish-language advertising.
Although it is hard to put a dollar figure on the people placement in “Diablo,” it may prove to be even more valuable.
Spanish-language networks say they have struggled for years to achieve advertising budget parity with the broader media marketplace. Post-census, Mr. Browne contends, they will be much closer to that goal.
In a business presentation last year for his bosses at NBC’s parent company, General Electric, Mr. Browne concluded by saying, “If you think it’s a good business now, wait until after the census.”