September 25, 2009

Lou Dobbs is upset that a Latin television station wants to make people less afraid of census workers by including a plot line in one of their soap operas titled "Don't be afraid to be counted."

DOBBS: Well, fans--if you like that, you're going to love this. Fans of telenovellas on Spanish-language television could soon be seeing more than they tuned in for as well. The Telemundo network, owned by NBC, will incorporate a story line in a popular soap opera to promote the U.S. Census. That's right. They're going to put that into a storyline. It is part of an Obama administration plan to make sure the Latino population is fully counted next year. Ines Ferre with our report.


INES FERRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When it comes to Latin television, no other genre is more popular with more viewers than steamy, plot-driven telenovellas, or soap operas. For the first time, a telenovella will include a plot line surrounding a U.S. Census message. "Don't be afraid to be counted." Telemundo's top soap opera "Mas Sabe el Diablo" or "The Devil Knows Best," will soon feature Michelle Vargas playing the role of a young Census Bureau recruiter.

DON BROWNE, PRESIDENT, TELEMUNDO: This character will live in the novella and basically be entertaining but educational, because education, empowering people with good, accurate information is really critical to the success of the Census.

FERRE: This is the first time that Telemundo and its Spanish- language competitors have partnered on a national level with the Census Bureau. Univision set up a toll-free number for questions and is planning a special program and heavy news coverage.

Government messages have aired on network programs before. Nancy Reagan appeared on "Diff'rent Strokes" to promote the "just say no to drugs" campaign. Michelle Obama recently taped a PSA for "Sesame Street." But one media critic says putting a government message in a telenovella is less transparent.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, "RELIABLE SOURCES": If Barack Obama or Michelle Obama or anybody else in the government wants to go on an entertainment show -- Leno, Letterman, even a soap opera -- and deliver a message, that's fine, because you know what you're getting. But if you're tuning into Telemundo and you're watching some soap opera that has a plot about a Census worker, you probably don't know that the U.S. government has had a hand in crafting that particular drama.

FERRE: Telemundo says it has total independent control of its program. With nearly 47 million Hispanics in the U.S., the Census has big political implications. Recently, Hispanics have tended to vote Democrat. The Census, as mandated by the Constitution, determines how many seats each state will get in the House, and how states draw up congressional districts. Every year, more than $400 billion are doled out based on Census data.


FERRE: And the Census numbers are also important for the way TV households are sampled. The bigger the audience, the more ad revenue the networks can generate. Now, the Census Bureau says it plans to make ad buys on media outlets to get its message across, but as far as a telenovella character is concerned, the Census Bureau says it did not pay Telemundo any money, Lou, to put that character in there.

DOBBS: Well, it's an interesting business proposition. Why Telemundo -- they are a small, they are a relatively small player compared to, say, Univision.

FERRE: Right. Well, actually, Univision, they get their telenovellas canned from Mexico, from Telavisa. So they say they do not have any editorial control over...

DOBBS: They have no editorial control. They're just a distributor.

FERRE: ... the telenovellas.

DOBBS: All right. And how much money is this worth? Does anybody have an estimate for Telemundo?

FERRE: No, we do not have any estimate as far as how much money it could be worth.

DOBBS: All right, we will find out. Why not? The government is everywhere else, why not in a soap opera? That's -- he asked rhetorically.

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