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No Azteca, Columbia Deal Reached

Television: Executive says the Mexican network misrepresented their preliminary talks.

October 20, 2000|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Television Azteca, Mexico's second-largest network, inflated and misrepresented what it said was a deal to acquire extensive new content from Columbia Pictures this week, a Columbia executive said Thursday.

In fact, Michael Grindon, president of Columbia TriStar International Television, said Thursday that the alleged deal to develop telenovelas and feature films is nothing more than talk.

The misstatements come at a time of intensifying competition for U.S. Spanish-speaking television audiences. This week, Miami-based Telemundo announced a new partnership with edgy Mexican producer Argos Comunicacion, snatching that firm away from TV Azteca, for whom it has exclusively produced until now.

Azteca responded late Tuesday by unveiling what it said was an extensive and "imminent" deal with Columbia. Azteca Chief Financial Officer Luis Echarte characterized the deal as a five-year partnership that would improve Azteca content as it pushed into the U.S. market with its latest venture, Azteca America.

Azteca America is expected to compete with Telemundo.

But according to Grindon, conversations with Azteca are preliminary at best.

Columbia TriStar already produces programming for TV Azteca in Mexico, including the game show "Mejores Amigos." Azteca and Columbia have discussed other productions, but the issue took on new urgency this week with the Telemundo-Argos announcement.

"They called us in a rush Monday and said 'We want to do a whole lot more business with you,' " Grindon said. "We said, 'Terrific.' They said, 'We'd like to do a big press release about all the work we're going to do together.' "

Grindon said Columbia asked Azteca to hold off on an announcement as no deal had been negotiated, but the network unveiled its grand plans Tuesday night at a Mexico City event and in an extensive news release distributed shortly after midnight Wednesday.

Columbia officials were not available for comment Wednesday.

Grindon said Columbia TriStar would "like to expand our business with TV Azteca. . . . It's just that right now we don't have any agreement to do that."

Furthermore, any deals for U.S. content would first be run by Telemundo here, since Columbia parent Sony Corp. owns a major stake in that network, he said.

"We wouldn't reject that out of hand but we would be talking to Telemundo about it," Grindon said. "They would have an informal first right of refusal because . . . we're a major investor in Telemundo."

Calling the Azteca announcement "curious," he said, "TV Azteca has some interesting business practices."

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