(Fortune) -- At 8:15 p.m. yesterday -- the start of primetime -- one of the most watched television networks in the country went dark, along with its website and radio properties. The 35-year-old president of this media empire's networks took to the microphone to exhort viewers, listeners, and readers that "now is the time" to let their government hear their growing yet oft-ignored voices -- by filling out their census forms.
The network is Univision, and Cesar Conde is the young media mogul. He says he is surrounded by evidence that the very audience he exists to serve is undercounted and marginalized by both the private and public sectors, so he's taken to beating the drum on behalf of his viewers, starting by needling them to fill out their census forms.
Univision's flagship network is the fifth largest amongst all broadcast networks, but it's actually second or third amongst 18-34 year olds, according to Conde. And yes, that counts English-language competition like Fox and NBC.
The company, which won't disclose how much it has spent on its Census campaign, has aired numerous public service announcements, including a 30-minute program, urging viewers to mail in their forms. Rival network Telemundo has also joined the cause, working a plotline about a census worker into one of its popular telenovelas, or soap operas.
If it seems odd that private companies are putting in legwork on behalf of a government initiative without an explicit payout, consider this: forecasters expect the census data to demonstrate that the Hispanic population is big -- and growing. Current census estimates place the number of Hispanics in the U.S. at 50 million, or 15% of the total population; by 2050, it's expected to hit 30%. Networks like Univision can leverage those numbers to lure more advertisers. "We're an outsized benefactor," Conde says.
In his interview with Fortune, Conde, who ranked 13th on the magazine's 40 Under 40 last year, said that while the media has been buzzing about the exploding Hispanic market for years, advertisers have yet to match that buzz with dollars.
Many companies still spend "several multiples" more on marketing to European countries than they spend reaching Hispanics in the U.S., he says, despite the fact that the latter, which has $1 trillion in purchasing power, is growing much faster. "It's off by 10, 20, 30 times," he says of the discrepancy. "It's out of whack."
The top 500 corporate advertisers in the U.S. spent 5.4% of their budgets on Hispanics last year, according to the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies -- far less than the group's estimated 15% share of the population. Conde says Univision has about 100 advertisers, while traditional media companies have 300 to 500. "When you look at the [difference in] ad dollars, it's night and day," he says.
That's partially why Univision's revenue still lags the Big Four -- ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox -- by a lot. Each pulled in more than $4 billion in advertising revenue last year, according to Ad Age. Univision's sales are still just half that.
Media spending is tied to variables other than population size and growth -- income, for example, plays a role in the equation. As of 2008, Hispanic households had a median income of $37,913, compared to $55,530 for non-Hispanic white households.
But the Hispanic market has its own unique appeal, says Conde. For one, it's younger. According to census data released last spring, more than a third of Hispanics are under 18 years old, compared to an overall average of 24%. Univision aims to convince advertisers that investing in a market with greater longevity will pay bigger dividends down the road.
While the new census data won't come out until spring of 2011, Conde says it's already piquing interest from advertisers. Early returns on Univision's campaign have been promising: In response to a poll from the Pew Hispanic Center, nine out of 10 Hispanics said they planned to fill out the forms.
Conde expects the census to have a lasting impact on the media industry -- and his revenues. "It's going to be a huge wake-up call for companies that are operating in the U.S.," he says. "The bottom line is, the growth in this country is coming from this Hispanic market. Investing in anything else is investing in static or declining parts of the economic landscape."
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