The Cultural Role of Cable Television
in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony from 1493 through 1898, at which time it came under the control of the United States. Throughout the twentieth century, the United States played a major role in all aspects of Puerto Rican life --- government, economy, education, culture, etc.

There is considerable debate about what the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States should be. Politically, there are three major streams of thought: national independence, statehood within the United States and the continuation of the commonwealth status. This debate extends beyond the political realm to the cultural one as well.

In Puerto Rico, television penetration is nearly universal (99%). Since the population base is relatively small, Puerto Rico is not self-sufficient in terms of television program production. Local productions are mainly news and variety entertainment programs. Many of the television programs are imported, some of which are telenovelas from Mexico and Venezuela but mostly programs from the United States.

On broadcast television, programs from the United States are usually dubbed in Spanish. On cable television (which is present in 29% of all Puerto Rican households), the situation is more complicated. Geographically, Puerto Rico is situated in the footprints of satellites directed towards the United States. This means that Puerto Rico cannot receive the Spanish-language satellite signals that are beamed towards Latin America. Consequently, Puerto Rican cable television has mainly English-language channels that were originally intended for United States audiences, such as the Discovery Channel, USA Network, ESPN etc, but not their Spanish-language counterparts. Puerto Rican cable households also receive the signals from US-based broadcast stations such as WABC (New York City), WGN (Chicago), WNBC (New York City), WOR (New York City), WPIX (New York City), WRAL (Raleigh), and WSBK (Boston). The only Spanish-language channels are the ones such as GEMS Television and Galavisión which operate inside the United States.

Irrespective of one's political beliefs, one can see why there is should be concern over the impact of the overwhelming presence of the English-language U.S. mass media on cable television in Puerto Rico. But how do consumers actually use and feel towards cable television?

Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica is an annual consumer survey of the general population between the ages of 12 and 64 in 18 Latin American countries and Puerto Rico. In 1996, we interviewed 450 respondents in Puerto Rico. We asked these respondents how they watch English- and Spanish-language television programs on a five point scale, where 1 means 'never' and 5 means 'frequently. In Table 1, we show the percentages of persons who watched English-language and Spanish-language programs 'frequently'.

Table 1. Percentages of Persons 12-64
who watch English- and Spanish-language programs 'frequently' by Cable and Non-Cable homes

  Persons in
Cable Homes
Persons in
Non-Cable Homes
All
Persons
Watch Spanish-language TV programs 80% 97% 92%
Watch English-language TV programs 55% 7% 21%

Within non-cable homes, the people receive mostly Spanish-language programs (either original or dubbed) and therefore the frequency of watching English-language programs is very low (7%) due to the lack of opportunity.

Within cable homes, we assume that these people subscribe to cable television in order to watch the cable channels, which happen to be mostly in English (55% of them do so frequently). So one consequence is that these people view the Spanish-language programs on broadcast television less often (80%) than those without cable television (97%).

The issue of cultural impact is not merely a matter of language. It is also about transculturation through a constant bombardment of images of lifestyles, customs, and values from another country. We asked the respondents about their interests in television programs that are produced in the United States, Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries, using a five-point scale where 1 represents 'Not interested' and 5 represents 'Very interested'. We show the results in Table 2 below.

Table 2. Percentages of Persons 12-64 who are 'Very Interested'
in programs from different countries by cable and non-cable homes

  Persons
in Cable Homes
Persons
in Non-Cable Homes
All
Persons
Made in Puerto Rico 64% 77% 73%
Made in USA 54% 34% 40%
Made in other Latin America countries 22% 30% 28%

Again, people in cable television households become more interested in television programs from the United States and less interested in Latin American programs, whether Puerto Rican or not. Overall, though, people are still most interested in the locally produced programs.

We acknowledge that our interest in this topic was inspired by a reading of Nancy Morris's book, Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity. Praeger: Westport, CT 1995. Pages 141-144 of that book dealt with the challenge of cable television to Puerto Rican identity, quoting in-depth interviews and focus group comments. We have provided some quantitative information from the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica study as our contribution towards this debate. This is a complex issue, and a debate that has gone on for nearly one hundred years is not likely to be settled by any survey results.

(posted by Roland Soong, August 11th, 1997)


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