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Univision: TV Success Story That Will Last?

Pioneering U.S. Spanish-language network must span the distance between new immigrants and mainstream Latinos.

July 13, 1999|ELIZABETH JENSEN and KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In 1961, Mexican media mogul Emilio Azcarraga Vidaurreta saw a rich future in the steady stream of his viewers heading north and the vast population of Latinos who had already put down U.S. roots. So he made a move, buying KCOR-TV in San Antonio, the nation's first Spanish-language TV station.

He envisioned a vast Spanish-language TV network--christened Spanish International Network--that would bring programming, fed from his extensive library of shows, to Spanish-speakers across America.

In a classic journey of immigrant assimilation, what started as one small Texas TV station has indeed blossomed into a nationwide broadcast network, now called Univision. The Los Angeles-based network today holds an astonishing 92% share of the prime-time audience that watches TV in Spanish--a universe that Nielsen Media Research estimates to be 8.3 million households and 28.3 million viewers age 2 and older.

In Los Angeles, Miami and Houston, Univision-owned stations often draw more viewers than the major network-owned stations, and Univision is gaining share among key Latino 18-to-49-year-olds who watch television in prime time, whether in Spanish or English.

The company's stock price has more than tripled in the last two years. In 1998, Univision reported operating profit of $131.2 million on revenue of $577.1 million, up 25.6% from $104.4 million in operating profit and $459.7 million in revenue in 1997.

Despite these striking gains, Univision's future depends on a difficult balancing act. The network must continue to draw new viewers from a constant influx of immigrants, many of them illegal and virtually unassimilated. Yet it also needs to retain upscale, bilingual Latinos--often several generations beyond immigration--who in the past have shunned its programs as cheap fare for the newly arrived.

By attempting this straddle, the Spanish-language network may redefine what it means to be an American broadcaster.

To be sure, Univision is not a likely model of change in television. One major network chief says Univision doesn't even figure on his radar screen, and even older-skewing CBS still draws three times as many younger adults in prime time.

But Azcarraga's vision is proving to be more far-reaching than he could have imagined 38 years ago. The American population is changing, with Latinos poised to emerge as the largest single minority by 2005, claiming one in eight Americans. And Univision is growing, while its more established English-language rivals are declining.

If Azcarraga had the vision, however, it fell to a Hollywood insider, A. Jerrold Perenchio, Univision's 68-year-old chairman and chief executive, to realize his dream. As Univision attempts to straddle two Latino cultures, it is undergoing its own assimilation journey internally. Perenchio is an American who isn't fluent in Spanish, and the company has hired so many non-Latinos in its sales and marketing staff that some dub it "McUnivision."

Yet its president and chief operating officer is an establishment Latino, Henry Cisneros, 51, a former Clinton cabinet member. Programming is headed by an immigrant, and a few years ago, Univision decided not to allow a word of English in its regular programming or advertising (product titles and movie dialogue excepted). As Cisneros explains it, "We believe that we should defend the Spanish language like Tiffany defends its jewels."

The Early Days of the Network

After acquiring the San Antonio station and renaming it KWEX, Azcarraga quickly added stations in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and San Francisco. But instead of investing in original fare, he filled the air time with material from his Mexican Grupo Televisa, the world's leading producer of Spanish-language broadcast programs. Over the next three decades and a couple of management changes, the appeal for the advertisers of the booming Latino demographic group wasn't enough to offset the reality of Univision's programming. Even the biggest telenovelas, the prime-time soap operas that are a lucrative staple of Spanish-language TV, looked cheap. And when it wasn't pushing products (in, say, a "Cocina Crisco" cooking show), the network tended to broad slapstick, such as the Saturday night "Sabado Gigante," featuring a buffoonish Don Francisco as ringmaster of a loud variety show, still a top-rated program. Off-hours were filled with dusty Mexican reruns.

The news division was chronically understaffed. Anchor Maria Elena Salinas recalls the days at Los Angeles station KMEX when she hosted a live community affairs show, co-anchored the news, reported three stories daily and watched the wires. "We didn't even have a TelePrompTer," she says. "Then I found out we did have one, but nobody knew how to work it."

Even worse, there was a widespread perception that once Latino immigrants became assimilated, and presumably were financially better off and more attractive to advertisers, they "graduated" to the English-language networks.

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