By Sean Davidson, C21Media
Telemundo added two large arrows to its quiver last fall in anticipation of its escalating ratings war with market-leading US Hispanic broadcaster Univision.
The network first scooped the Spanish-language US rights to the 2018 and 2022 Fifa World Cups away from its arch rival and, for good measure, then lured one of Univision’s former board members, Emilio Romano, behind its president’s desk.
The 46-year-old and the multi-platform Fifa deal – which includes the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cups and other matches – arrived at the network within a few weeks of each other. Romano says his involvement was limited to a bit of cheerleading, but the NBCUniversal (NBCU) subsidiary is already looking at how the quadrennial and quasi-religious soccer tournament might help close the gap with Univision.
The network will draw on NBC’s experience covering the Olympic Games, just as it drew on the coffers of new cable parent Comcast Communications to close the deal, says Romano, whose resumé also includes stints as Mexican broadcaster Televisa Group’s director of mergers and acquisitions and later VP of international operations. He was also among those who represented Mexico during its negotiations with the US and Canada over the North American Free Trade Agreement and more recently was CEO of the aviation firm Mexicana de Aviacion Group.
“If there was still any doubt in anybody’s mind about the commitment of NBCU and Comcast to Telemundo the Fifa deal should be enough to make them realise that’s not the case,” says Romano. The network made a joint pitch with NBC Sports for the Fifa rights, a deal said to be worth US$600m, almost double what Univision paid for its current package.
The World Cup will be a “game-changer” for Telemundo, says Romano. “We’re going to work with the expertise at NBC on Olympic coverage and bring to life the people involved – not only to cover the games but to immerse the audience in soccer in a way that’s never been done before.”
But 2015 is still a long way away and in the meantime, Univision is beating its competition like a piñata. Recent surges in its ratings have seen the network best not only its Hispanic rivals but, on certain nights, the English-language majors too. Univision consistently beats The CW and outperformed ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in all key demographics including two-plus and the 18-49s in September, when it aired the finale of the Televisa-produced variety show Pequeños Gigantes (Little Giants). Add it all up and you get a new, sixth player among the so-called ‘big five’ networks in the US, a lot of excited chatter about the rise of the country’s Hispanic media and cause for concern at NBCU.
There are roughly 50.5 million Hispanics in the US – they surpassed African-Americans as the country’s largest minority a few years ago – and that number is growing four times faster than the national average, according to the US Census Bureau. By 2050, it is expected there will be 132.8 million Hispanics in the country, or 30.2% of the total population.
Looking to capitalise on this while catching up with Univision, Telemundo’s immediate plans include a renewed focus on news and an expansion of non-primetime programming beyond the traditional Hispanic genres of talk, sports and telenovelas. “We have several alternatives we’re going to disclose very soon that have to do with news, reality formats and variety,” Romano says, adding that new arrivals will begin to appear shortly “to make sure we have a more complete line-up throughout the day.”
Not that Telemundo is giving up on daytime talk. It scooped another notable figure from Univision last year with the defection of Cristina Saralegui, described by some as the Spanish version of Oprah Winfrey. Saralegui crossed over during the presidency of Romano’s predecessor Don Browne and in October debuted her new two-hour talker Pa’lante con Cristina.
Saralegui has said that one of the frustrations that nudged her away from Univision was its ban on the English language, which now pops up occasionally in her new ‘Spanglish’ show.
In primetime, Telemundo will look to build on its strengths, which include telenovelas, the bulk of which are filmed at its studio in Miami and Colombia, and distributed by its Telemundo International division. Recent titles including the unscripted Caso Cerrado Edicion Estelar (Case Closed Star Edition) and Mi Corazón Insiste… en Lola Volcán (My Heart Insists on Lola Volcan) have done very well, and in October posted significant gains in the two-plus and 18-49 demos. Caso Cerrado averaged over 1.4 million total viewers in October, followed closely by Mi Corazón.
“We will look at different genres,” Romano says, adding that the net will stay true to its core audience and genres. “Our job is difficult but it’s not that difficult. We’re not here to invent or discover, we’re here to provide the best entertainment to our audience. We have a lot of things we can do better. Although we have had our share of successes we know we can improve several aspects.”
One of those improvements will be more original scripted programming on youth-skewed cable channel mun2. Last year the channel okayed its first scripted series, street-racing drama RPM Miami, and Romano says mun2 will continue to push in that direction with more commissions. Original programmes draw big ratings and “are going to be core to our future strategy,” he says. “You should expect mun2 to keep generating original and scripted programming.”
Telenovelas may remain a staple of the Telemundo diet, but Romano says the genre may need to evolve if it ever wants to cross over into the Anglo market – a much-discussed but still unrealised possibility. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a big hit in the general market with a crossover genre,” he says, suggesting this could be a hybrid of telenovela and romantic miniseries.
Originals also fuel Telemundo International, which distributes to about 100 territories and makes up the bulk of the company’s overseas interests. Although Telemundo also reaches across Latin America, through a pay-TV channel joint-venture with Televisa, the network’s current plans don’t include launching any new channels outside the US. Syndication and distribution takes priority, says Romano.
Distribution also defines its focus in the digital realm, where he sees the network holding off on original content in favour of expanding and streamlining its relationships with carriers and other partners. In the meantime, the network’s online content will be mostly clips from shows seen on air.
“We’re targeting the smartphone market through apps and video streaming,” Romano says, noting that US Hispanics over-index on smartphone use. “The Spanish audience is very much engaged in new technology. They embrace new technologies and use them extensively. But the Hispanic market in the US is very similar to the general market,” he adds. “They want to be able to download video, they want to comment on news. There’s still a lot we can do as a media company to engage these new technologies.
“We’re still in the nascent steps,” and download times and audience attention spans are issues still to be worked out, he notes, “but we’re going to see a lot of development on that front.”
Trying to spot and exploit the next trend in mobile tech is the sort of thing that keeps him up at night, he admits. “We know we’re doing good programming and what we’re working hard to do is make sure we’re always on top of any distribution platform,” whether it comes from Google, Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere. “If I had a magic wand I’d want to make sure we’re in a position for that next big creation, which won’t take long to arrive in this market.”
Back on the main network, news and non-fiction programming are looking to build stronger ties between the network and the communities across the US that house its 14 owned-and-operated stations and its 46 affiliates. Telemundo has a rare opportunity to make its presence known in news because of the US and Mexican elections in 2012.
Covering the Mexican election is another way to capitalise on the close ties between Mexico and US Hispanics, says Romano, while in the US the network has another chance to score points on Univision. Five Republican hopefuls – Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann – are boycotting Univision’s planned January 31 debate over allegations the network tried to smear potential vice-presidential candidate Marco Rubio by airing extensive coverage about his brother-in-law’s arrest in 1987 on drug charges. Univision allegedly offered to withhold the coverage if Rubio, a junior senator from Florida, agreed to appear on its Sunday morning news programme Al Punto (The Point). Univision has denied the allegations.
Romano says Telemundo’s “heavy” investment in its news division may also lead to more documentary and other non-fiction commissions as the network looks to keep an open mind on new projects. “We’re always open to any quality programming. We’re humble enough to say the best idea could be anywhere and I invite anybody who has a good idea to knock on our doors,” he says.
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