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Telemundo’s Vote to Unionize Is a Sign of Television’s Changing Demographics

Though the Spanish-language network is a sister company to NBC, its performers do not receive the benefits that their English-language peers do.
Telemundo’s Sin Senos Sí Hay Paraíso.

Telemundo’s Sin Senos Sí Hay Paraíso.

Performers with the Spanish-language television network Telemundo overwhelmingly voted on Wednesday to join the screen actors’ union SAG-AFTRA. Actors, stunt performers, singers, and dancers working on telenovelas produced in the United States will be eligible for membership in the new bargaining unit.

Eight-one percent of the 148 actors polled lobbied to join the organization, which represents 160,000 actors in the U.S. The poll, conducted via a mail ballot election, represented the first time in 65 years that a group of actors at a major television network sought a unionization election, according to SAG-AFTRA. Telemundo says it will begin negotiating with the union once the the National Labor Relations Board certifies the election results.

The election’s results represent a significant step forward for Spanish-language performers in the U.S.: Though Telemundo is a sister company to NBC, its performers do not receive the union salary levels, protections, residuals, union pensions, or health benefits that their English-language peers working at NBC do. Telemundo actors earn half of what English-language actors on NBC TV shows do, according to SAG-AFTRA. The union’s executive director David White wrote in a statement on Wednesday that the decision means that performers in Spanish-language media will soon have protections that “reflect established industry standards” for the first time.

It’s no surprise that Telemundo caught the union’s attention, according to Kent Wilkinson, the director of the Thomas Jay Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication at Texas Tech University. “It’s part of this bigger conglomerate, and you’ve got people from both English and Spanish-language units working side-by-side,” he says. “In that environment, the discrepancies there are clearer, they’re more apparent on a daily basis than if it’s an independent company.”

Since its acquisition of Telemundo in 2001, NBC has been proud to tout the affiliation. It is currently building a $250 million facility in Miami to house Telemundo Network, Telemundo Studios, and Telemundo International. In the past two years, NBC has also launched short-form programming and film divisions for Telemundo.

SAG-AFTRA agreements typically require that English-language actors in prime time, scripted shows get paid a minimum of $933 a day, while Telemundo typically pays $180 to $300 a day

For Telemundo, which is the first Spanish-language network to double down on U.S. production, compromising with SAG-AFTRA represents the next logical step. As opposed to its main Spanish-language TV competitor, Univision, which imports its series from the Mexican production house Grupo Televisa, Telemundo now produces three to four telenovelas a year at its production studio in Miami alone; it has another production studio in Los Angeles, and in 2016 began producing more gritty prime-time dramas president Luis Silberwasser calls “super series.”

“Telemundo committed to domestic production of Spanish-language programming in the U.S., which has never really been done before,” says Craig Allen, an associate professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University that studies Spanish-language media. Wednesday’s decision, he says, does not represent a delay in granting protections to Spanish-speaking performers so much as “a beginning of Spanish-language programming in the U.S. started by a network that has traditionally been at the bottom of the barrel.”

Wednesday’s election results may not ensure Telemundo players total wage parity with their NBC counterparts, The Hollywood Reporter’s Jonathan Handel warns. SAG-AFTRA agreements typically require that English-language actors in prime time, scripted shows get paid a minimum of $933 a day, while Telemundo typically pays $180 to $300 a day, Handel says. Because SAG-AFTRA has lower rates for soap operas, public TV, and low-budget movies, a Telemundo deal with SAG-AFTRA might yield a “compromise,” he writes.

And Allen says that, if SAG-AFTRA is aggressive in negotiations, the union could inspire a blowback. “Because of the fact that American Spanish-language programming in a successful form is new, if the employees push too hard on this, it could roll back NBC and Telemundo’s commitment to that, knowing that there is tons and tons of Spanish-language product overseas,” he says.

In the long term, however, it would behoove Telemundo to cooperate with America’s most powerful screen actors’ union. Producing shows stateside has done well for the network, whose total viewership ratings have been rising since July. In January, the Los Angeles Times’ Meg James attributed the network’s recent success to its original scripted shows appealing to the growing population of U.S. Latinos born in the country. Meanwhile, at Univision, which has traditionally dominated ratings for Spanish-language media, the prime-time audience for its imported fare, made in Mexico, has fallen 45 percent since 2013.