By Graeme Wood (Bloomberg Businessweek)
(Updates the name for Jorge Ramos’s show in the 16th paragraph. Corrects the time period Univision says its ratings among 18- to 49-year-olds beat ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox in the fourth paragraph.)
Isaac Lee, the Colombia-born 42-year-old in charge of news at the Spanish-language network Univision, is a traitor: first to his native tongue, and second to his generation. As the architect of the forthcoming all-news channel Fusion, Lee is plotting the first English-language broadcast for a network whose main draw for the last half-century has been that it’s en Español. In that niche, which has long since grown into a mass market, Univision has dominated its rivals, styling itself, with just a hint of hubris, as “the Hispanic heartbeat of America.” When Fusion goes live on Oct. 28, Univision’s programming will suddenly be bilingual, with 24 hours of English to match its 24 hours of Spanish.
The greater betrayal, at least for reporters of a certain age, is Lee’s determination to reach millennials with cable news. Television news audiences have been graying across networks, and Fusion is supposed to cater to 18- to 34-year-olds, who would as soon listen to Bing Crosby as watch Brian Williams. “If one year from now, you turn on Fusion and it looks for a second like it’s Univision news, I should be fired,” Lee says. “Right now our target viewers probably don’t watch any news,” he adds. “They watch The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and Girls. When they do watch news, it’s a different type of news: Jon Stewart is news; The Colbert Report is news. What we have to do is understand what it is that this generation wants.”
Univision’s viewers have changed dramatically in the past two decades. So have the demographics of American Latinos, who used to come to America by crossing borders, but increasingly arrive in its hospital maternity wings. They speak English perfectly, often better than Spanish. Univision’s news audience already skews young, but to lock in its lead among the cherished 18- to 49-year-olds, programming in English is essential.
That doesn’t mean the evolving strategy is risk-free. In July, Univision reported quarterly profits of $40.7 million, up 28 percent from the year before. That same month, the network crowed that, for a month, its ratings among 18- to 49-year-olds dominated ABC (DIS), CBS (CBS), NBC (CMCSA), and Fox (FOX). National ads boasted, “Número Uno is the New #1.” Its ratings have enjoyed a steady rise as the Hispanic population has grown 43 percent in the past decade. Historically, telenovelas (soap operas), not news, have attracted the most eyeballs; most of Univision’s telenovela programming has been produced by Mexico’s Grupo Televisa(TV).
Fusion is a joint venture with ABC. With 20 million subscribers at launch, through partnerships with six of the major cable distributors, the network will have one of the biggest debuts in years. The launch is estimated to cost $275 million, according to an analysis of Miami-Dade County documents by the Miami Herald. Industry analysts have compared its magnitude to the much-heralded 2009 debut of the MLB Network. Fusion reflects, depending on how one looks at it, the success of the Hispanic American community in general and of Univision in particular. Or it may portend a dangerous new era for the network, when its audience is not as linguistically captive—and may not be as loyal.
Isaac Lee, president of Univision’s news divisionLee lives as an expatriate outside Miami, in a lush and wealthy suburb whose muddy roads, blue swimming pools, and overgrown vegetation recall the prosperous neighborhoods of many Latin American capitals. He frequently meets with his Fusion team in his home’s modern white breakfast nook. On a morning in June, Lee wears a black T-shirt and clear-plastic glasses. His dog, Chocolate—pronounced “show-co-LAHT-ay”—begs for scraps under the table, while the editorial team discusses Fusion programming ideas and a Univision documentary about the abuse of farmworkers.
Lee arrived at the network in early 2011, roughly the same time as his counterpart at ABC News, Ben Sherwood. Sherwood says his interest in anglicizing Univision grew out of a book idea he had in the late 1990s about the population decline of white America. He abandoned the book, but the demographics remained convincing. “I’m a Californian, and in the 1990s I saw California go through the demographic changes that are now taking place throughout the United States,” Sherwood says.
Univision approached ABC with the idea for a collaboration, and Sherwood, Lee, and Univision President Cesar Conde had lunch at ABC headquarters in New York in March 2011 to discuss a partnership for 2012 election coverage. Julie Townsend, a spokeswoman for ABC News, says the “bromance” among the three men blossomed from there, and the deal for Fusion was inked by December 2012. Univision is leading the content production, and ABC will run the back end, including drawing advertisers.
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