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Spanish-Language Networks Seek Wider Niche

Television: Univision hit on a winning formula for expanding its audience base. Now rival Telemundo offers a revamped lineup-- with no prime-time soaps.

September 21, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six years ago, there was just one thing keeping Univision from becoming a major television network: It didn't have enough viewers.

Flush with capital after its purchase by media mogul A. Jerrold Perenchio and with a deep well of first-rate programming from production partners Televisa, of Mexico, and Venevision, of Venezuela, the network nonetheless had little room to grow. It already was the dominant Spanish-language broadcast company in the U.S., far ahead of Telemundo and other competitors.

"That's when we said it doesn't make sense for us to be beating up Telemundo or anybody else in Spanish. We should be talking about growing the [Spanish-language] pie," says Mario Rodriguez, Univision's vice president of programming. "The idea was to go after Hispanic viewers watching English [television]."

Since then, Univision's prime-time viewership has nearly doubled, growing so fast that the network heads into the new fall season as the fifth-largest in the U.S. So it's not surprising to find that Telemundo is now looking to the general market for growth as well.

Flush with its own infusion of capital and other resources in the wake of its purchase by Sony and Liberty Media, the nation's No. 2 Spanish-language network will this month unveil a new lineup of sitcoms, dramas and game shows. But perhaps the most significant thing about the lineup is what's been left out: For the first time in its history, Telemundo's prime-time programming will include no telenovelas (soap operas).

"We want to bring something extra, something else to the marketplace," says Peter Tortorici, Telemundo's new president and CEO. "I think there's tremendous room here for both of us to do what we do well--although in some ways differently--and expand the base both of audience and advertising dollars that we may be reaching into."

Although Univision has been siphoning bilingual viewers away from the English-language networks since at least 1995, its boldest assault came 17 months ago when it rolled out "Despierta America," a three-hour morning program similar in format to ABC's "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Today." The lively, unpredictable show quickly drew an audience to what had been a dead spot in Univision's lineup, doubling the network's morning ratings in Miami and tripling viewership in New York.

But there are few similarly dynamic additions among the 14 new fall shows Univision will begin rolling out this month. Instead, the network seems content to make only minor adjustments to its prime-time package.

"We're not changing the cornerstone of prime time," Rodriguez says. "When you have a very successful schedule--as we've had--you just don't tinker with it."

That means the network's weeknight programming, which can be seen locally on KMEX-TV Channel 34, will again consist largely of soap operas--albeit new ones--from Televisa, the world's most prolific producer of broadcast programming. The main change will take place Friday and Sunday nights beginning next month. In the first case, the low-rated music and variety series "Al Ritmo de Fiesta" will be replaced by two half-hour Televisa comedies, while in the second instance, "Quiero Ser Estrella," an hourlong talent show similar to "Star Search," and the romantic one-hour game/variety show "Fantastico Amor" will join the Sunday night lineup between 7 and 9 p.m.

"We have made changes in Sunday prime time because that's our weakest night," Rodriguez said. "And we've made changes on Friday . . . again because that was the weakest hour of them all."

Another lagging schedule period is the weekday midafternoon slot immediately preceding "Cristina," the network's highly-rated talk show. That hour will soon be filled by the game show "El Bla-Blazo" and "El Gordo y La Flaca," a live, celebrity-themed magazine program that pairs popular Univision entertainment reporters Raul De Molina and Lili Estefan and that premieres today. "El Bla-Blazo" debuts Oct. 5.

Both shows will be filmed in Miami, meaning that half the network's programming will now be produced domestically for the first time.

Telemundo, meanwhile, is completely remaking its programming lineup in the hope of recapturing some of the market share lost during the last four years. The financially troubled network once owned more than 40% of the Spanish-language audience in the U.S., but after being placed under bankruptcy-law protection in 1994, it has seen its ratings shrink to less than half that; in prime time it's done even worse, maintaining just 13% of the national Latino viewership.

The problem, says Tortorici, was that the network's nightly lineup was built around inferior versions of the same kind of telenovelas Univision was offering.

"The audience was smart enough to know the difference between good and not," he says. "Univision is so dominant in terms of audience preference, it's more than a suspicion that Telemundo really hasn't been a choice.

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