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Sinclair nixes Univision affiliation, ending local Spanish broadcasts

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: November 13, 2023, 7:37am

SEATTLE — For more than a month, Burien Councilmember Jimmy Matta tried to figure out a puzzling news release from Sinclair Broadcast Group.

The late-September release seemed to indicate Sinclair station KUNS would end its Univision affiliation, spelling the end not only of national Spanish-language programing but also the region’s lone, locally produced TV newscast in Spanish.

But the release didn’t say that outright, or even mention the name Univision — a huge and revered national brand. Instead, the announcement said the station would begin airing CW Network programming beginning Jan. 1, also declining to note the new entertainment and sports programming will be in English.

Matta put the pieces together but pressed Sinclair for official confirmation that KUNS would no longer run Spanish-language content. “Not only does it look like it’s true, they’re trying to hide it,” he said.

Last week, after Matta copied an array of Latino leaders on one of several email inquiries, Sinclair spokesperson Jessica Bellucci directly stated KUNS will no longer be a Univision affiliate and that “the station’s programming will be presented in English” — information also conveyed to The Seattle Times.

Bellucci added KUNS and sister-station KOMO “remain committed to covering local news, issues, and events that hold significance for the Hispanic community in the Pacific Northwest.”

Matta was not appeased. “It is difficult to shake the feeling that something precious has been lost with this decision,” he wrote back.

As he drums up opposition to the move, other Latino leaders have chimed in.

“I want to add my voice of disappointment,” Luis Navarro, past president of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce’s regional chapter, wrote in an email to Sinclair. (He’s also a Seattle port official, but wrote in his personal capacity.)

Navarro included a screenshot of 2022 Census statistics showing Hispanic people comprise 10.5% of King County’s population. “Hispanics are the second-largest minority population in the county and the largest in Washington state,” he added.

Jose Iniguez, president of Encanto Arts, a nonprofit group engaging youths from underserved communities, noted to Sinclair that Univision has been the only television network eager to promote the organization’s events.

Similarly, Maru Mora Villalpando, a longtime activist with the immigrant rights group La Resistencia, said in an interview that the organization has relied on the Univision affiliate for consistent coverage it can’t get anywhere else.

Bellucci of Sinclair said she believes Univision, which also has affiliate stations in Eastern Washington and Portland, is exploring other Seattle options after losing KUNS. Univision spokesperson Maria Areco declined to comment.

Sinclair offered Univision another way to stay on the air locally by occupying a different “channel position,” according to Bellucci. She’s likely referring to a so-called “subchannel,” which most cable, satellite and streaming services don’t carry.

Univision rejected that proposal, according to Belluci, who added: “The offer still stands.”

Depending on what TV service they have, Seattle-area viewers may also be able to watch Univision’s national programming, as well as rival Telemundo’s national content, which airs in Seattle on a station affiliated with KIRO 7.

Local Spanish-speakers can tune into radio stations, too, including Seattle’s El Rey (1360 AM), run by Sea Mar Community Health Centers, and Redmond’s KXPA-AM (1540), which broadcasts Radio Ya es Tiempo! three days a week.

Still, Teresa James, who sold advertising for the Univision affiliate from the time it went on air in 2007 until retiring early this year, said its demise is “such a huge step backwards.” James, who’s of Mexican descent, said she looked at her job as doing something important for the community.

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She said she doesn’t understand why Sinclair decided to pull the plug on Univision. Advertising, she said, “was easy to sell because the brand is so famous.” She estimates she earned about $10 million for the company in her time there.

Bellucci didn’t respond to questions about Sinclair’s reasoning. She also said she couldn’t provide information about what will happen to a small team of employees working on the local newscast. There were six when James was last working at KUNS, including co-anchors Jaime Méndez and Paula Lamas.

“The whole Latino community knows who they are,” said Jackie Lomeli, coordinator of a workforce development program for the nonprofit Latino Civic Alliance. She noted the anchors often attend community events, including last year’s opening of a civic and cultural center in Burien.

At the center last week, Iliana Arano and Luz Cortes, participants in a parent engagement program, said they were sad to learn about the Univision affiliate’s fate. Arano said KUNS has kept viewers informed during the pandemic, telling viewers where to get COVID-19 tests and vaccines, and how to apply for relief benefits. During the holidays, Cortes noted, the station provides information about toy drives and free turkey offerings.

Angel Palacios Gallardo, an 18-year-old at the center on the same day, said he grew up watching the Univision affiliate with his grandma. Learning about local crime, she would warn him to be careful. She also watches KUNS to hear news about her home country, Mexico.

A senior at Federal Way High School, Palacios Gallardo said KUNS was always on when he came home from football practice in the afternoon.

“We don’t ever change that channel,” he said.

It’s the same situation at the Matta household. Walking in the door around 4 p.m. last Wednesday, the Burien councilmember found a national entertainment news show, El Gordo y La Flaca, playing on the large flatscreen in his living room while family members and friends were in the kitchen preparing tacos.

Matta’s uncle, Miguel Angel Guevara Torres, said he turns on KUNS as soon as he wakes up, around 7 a.m., to watch the Univision show ¡Despierta América! (Wake up America!). He continues to watch throughout the day, taking in celebrity gossip, scientific programs and soccer matches.

A retired fisherman, he said there’s little else for him to do. “It’s the only thing I have,” he said in Spanish, with his nephew interpreting.

Matta’s mother, Nora Torres, has less time for TV because she helps out in her son’s construction business and works in landscaping. But in the evenings, she watches KUNS’ news programs and then telenovelas, or soap operas.

At 6 p.m., the evening lineup began with the local news, and the family gathered in the living room. As with other stations, KUNS’ newscast led with results from the previous day’s election, including the seeming shift toward more centrist candidates in Seattle City Council races.

The newscast also gave time to subjects of particular interest to immigrants and Latinos. One segment discussed a congressional bill that would prohibit immigration officers from shackling pregnant women.

Another segment featured a sit-down interview between Méndez and a woman who specializes in Latino-focused programs for the Seattle chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. As she talked about the need to overcome stigma surrounding mental health care, the station flashed a website address and QR code for NAMI’s Spanish-language services.

Matta held up his phone to capture the QR code leading to the website, then sent a link to his mom so she could share it among her large circle of friends and acquaintances. One of them over that evening, Maria Elena Aguilar, said KUNS has interviewed her numerous times about health programs she has volunteered for.

After the newscast, Matta indicated he wasn’t ready to accept Sinclair’s decision without a fight. “We’ve got to think about what to do next,” he said.

Shortly after, he resolved to urge fellow city council members in his city and others to send a letter to Sinclair and Univision, demanding more answers.