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New Si TV Wants to Be in Tune With Young Latino Viewers

Television: Cable network, expected next year, aims to appeal to a fast-growing, largely overlooked audience.

March 10, 1999|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With an eye toward capturing viewers in the nation's fastest-growing demographic group, a team of investors and leading entertainment industry figures will announce today plans to launch the first English-language cable network aimed at young Latinos.

Si TV, a 24-hour advertiser-supported venture offering primarily original programming, is expected to debut in the first quarter of next year, said co-chairman Jeff Valdez. George A. Greenberg of Newberger Greenberg & Associates, a media advisory firm that helped the Sci-Fi Channel, among others, get started, said the network is expected to initially be available to approximately 6 million homes nationwide, although no cable operator has yet committed to carry the fledgling network.

Valdez hopes to make an announcement regarding carriage and financial backing shortly after June's National Cable Television Assn. show in Chicago.

"We are really in the formative stages," said Greenberg, who estimates it will cost about $30 million to get Si TV up and running and another $70 million to get the network through its first three years. "We will be on the street within 60 to 90 days with the complete investment package."

"That's right in the ballpark," said Rick Patterson, a partner with Waller Capital Corp., a New York-based investment banking firm. "It's an expensive proposition."

Despite that expense, however, Patterson says the network can succeed with modest prime-time viewership, a figure he puts at 250,000 nationwide, or about 125,000 less than Black Entertainment Television averages nightly in a cable universe of 67 million households. But to achieve even those numbers, the network will have to build a core ethnic audience, then cross over and lure Anglo viewers much as BET has done.

"I think where this one can succeed is that it's a kind of a crossover channel between American Hispanic culture and broader Hispanic culture," says Patterson, adding that his firm isn't offering any financial backing yet, however.

"We really like it," he says, "but they came to us at the idea stage. They had an idea, they had a business plan . . . but they needed a little bit more research to substantiate their position and have more detail on the programming wheel."

And until that programming is in place, few cable systems are likely to promise the network a channel slot in what has become a very crowded market, say Greenberg and Patterson. At the end of last year, for example, just one in five cable systems offered more than 53 channels, and there were 174 networks vying for those spaces.

"It's not difficult to be a skeptic in terms of past experience with great programming having very difficult times getting cable and [systems operators] to sign on," says Lisbeth Barron, a partner with Bear, Stearns & Co., a New York investment banker approached about the venture. "On the other hand, in the last 12 months we've seen that really terrific programming finds a way."

Although Latinos make up 11% of the U.S. population, and their numbers are growing six times faster than the population at large, there have been few attempts to develop programming of relevance to the acculturated segment of that community. Spanish-language television, for example, fills its prime-time lineup with imported programming broadcast in a language foreign to many U.S.-born Latinos while a recent Screen Actors Guild survey found less than 3% of prime-time roles on English-language network TV were filled by Latinos. "I think Si TV has an opportunity to fill a very important gap," says Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza.

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Formed by Valdez as a programming service 17 months ago, Beverly Hills-based Si TV is one of the nation's only entertainment companies providing content aimed at English-dominant, bicultural Latinos. Last year, the company produced two bilingual shows--the talk show "Cafe Ole With Giselle Fernandez" and the comedy showcase "Funny Is Funny"--for the Spanish-language cable channel Galavision. The half-hour shows, which dealt primarily with Latino culture in the U.S., helped boost Galavision's weekend share of the Latino audience in the 18-to-34 demographic 83%, to 3.3.

When Si TV and Galavision parted ways in August, Valdez took the shows into national syndication in 52 markets, drawing solid ratings in New York, Atlanta, Houston and San Antonio.

"This is way beyond a concept," says Valdez, who worked for TriStar Television and created the short-lived comedy show "Comedy Compadres" before establishing Si TV. "For years we've been a program provider. Our shows have run on Showtime, Comedy Central, Galavision. We've never had a show that didn't work in the ratings."

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