The growing number of Latino pop stars on singing competitions suggests that television executives believe they are an integral part of ratings success. (Photos/NBC Latino)

The secret to music reality show success requires a Latino pop star judge

J.Lo, Shakira, Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato may all be Latina pop stars, but there’s another thing they all have in common: their presence on shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” are helping revive popularity in reality music show competitions, bringing with them the Latino audiences that are key to ratings success. And with confirmation that Paulina Rubio will be the newest addition to the judge’s panel on “The X Factor,” one thing has become very clear: Latino music superstars have cornered a new market on network television.

Consider the math. When “American Idol” first hit television sets in 2002, America quickly fell in love with contestants vying for a chance at music industry success – to the tune of 30 million viewers during its heyday in 2006. By the time Jennifer Lopez was tapped to take a seat at the judges table in 2010, she was charged with re-energizing a franchise that had been steadily losing ratings across younger audiences.  Lopez left the show after two seasons (“I made the decision that I was going to go back on tour and after that focus on film for the next few years,” Lopez told NBC Latino of her decision to leave) and the result as proved nothing less than slightly disastrous for what was once one of the top English-language shows among U.S. Hispanics.

The damage? Last week’s “American Idol” season 12 finale came in at 14.3 million total viewers, making it the first time ever that the show had failed to reach the 20-million mark. With “Idol” earning a mere 3.6 rating among adults 18-49, reports The Hollywood Reporter, the show’s median viewer is 51.2 years old – hardly the younger audience that’s key to bringing in advertisers and the reason why show executives are scrambling to make changes that may include a return to “Idol” for Lopez.

Latinos are the fastest growing minority group as well as the youngest,” says Gabriel Reyes, a Hispanic marketing expert and president of Reyes Entertainment, a communications and marketing agency. “Using Latino on-air talent on these shows gives them a second life by bringing an audience that is key to the success of these shows. Jennifer Lopez saved the ‘American Idol’ brand and she may do it again – I think we’re seeing a trend that’s here to stay.”

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According to Nielsen, there are 115.6 million homes in the United States where television is being watched, compounding a viewership of 294 million television viewers. An estimated 40 percent of those homes are Hispanic households, making networks anxious to capture Latino television audiences – especially because the U.S. Latinos have an annual buying power of more than $1 trillion.

Television executives have essentially remade the traditional television formula using “black-white imagery” in order to get Latino viewers and their coveted dollars, says Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA).

“The old formula for variety shows always incorporated a black sidekick,” explains Sanchez. “The use of Latino talent in these types of reality shows by television executives is something that has only happened recently and it’s a new formula that helps these shows hit the numbers they need for success.”

Take “The X Factor,” executive produced by “American Idol” alum Simon Cowell. Cowell seemed “almost contemptuous of Latino performers” in the early days of “Idol,” says Sanchez. Now Cowell has signed on returning talent Demi Lovato and Mario Lopez; with the addition of Paulina Rubio, Cowell has positioned himself to gain a strong Latino viewership.

“The Latino demographic, as we saw in the presidential election, is not monolithic – there are nuances with which you can reach different segments of the market,” says Reyes. “Demi Lovato will really resonate with American-born millennials that don’t have a lot of connection to Spanish-language media and someone like Paulina Rubio will resonate with those that are recent immigrants from Latin America, where she is a huge star.”

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The phenomenon of using Latin talent in reality singing competitions has even extended internationally, with Ricky Martin’s gig as judge on “The Voice Australia.” There are more Latino contestants on these shows than ever before as well, but Sanchez says network executives have a long way to go to truly incorporate Latinos on broadcast television.

“There’s a subliminal appearance that Latinos are part of mainstream America and that we are front and center,” states Sanchez. “But I don’t think on-camera talent is enough.”

“Unless you build a roster of talented producers and writers who are Latino to position these artists, correctly, meaningfully and authentically, our position in the industry will remain fairly superficial.”

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