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Telemundo Seeks Parity With Rival at L.A. Gala

September 10, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Spanish-language TV broadcaster Telemundo isn't content to sit in the cheap seats any longer.

The NBC-owned network will allege in court today that the city of Los Angeles has violated its 1st Amendment rights by refusing to give its local news crews the same entree that Telemundo's chief rival, Univision Communications Inc., will have to Monday's city-sponsored celebration of the start of Mexico's war for independence from Spain.

For more than two decades, Univision, the nation's dominant Spanish-language network, has not only had front-row access to the annual El Grito celebration, it has also produced the event. Univision has scripted the ceremony, provided the talent -- this year the headliner will be its Grammy-winning recording artist, Pepe Aguilar -- and filmed the festivities, including a concert, for broadcast on its network.

This year, Telemundo executives say they tried for four months to convince City Hall to let their crews roam as freely on stage and in the audience as Univision's. Rebuffed, the network's two local stations sued.

The city, the suit contends, acted illegally to "elevate one member of the media to a favored and indeed dominant position" and relegated Telemundo "to a separate and inherently inferior position."

U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins last week granted Telemundo's request for a temporary restraining order against the city, and scheduled this morning's hearing to decide whether the network should be given the equal access it demands.

The city's argument is that it would be a threat to public safety to give more television camera people the wide-ranging access Univision employees will enjoy. Beyond that, the city says in a court filing, "this case is really more of a dispute between plaintiff Telemundo and Univision."

Telemundo is engaged in a bitter war with Univision for Spanish-language viewers in Los Angeles, the nation's largest Latino market. Telemundo was acquired last year by NBC, which is owned by General Electric Co.

Under Univision's deal with the city, crews from its station, KMEX-TV Channel 34, will be allowed to wander the stage and mingle with the crowds.

Telemundo executives say city officials told them last month that crews from its two local stations, KVEA-TV Channel 52 and KWHY-TV Channel 22, would be confined to a riser reserved for members of the media, set up behind the audience.

In its court filing, the city cites public safety concerns as well as Fire Department standard policies and procedures for confining the media, including Telemundo's crews, to the riser.

Officials from the city -- which plans to spend $129,000 on this year's El Grito celebration -- wouldn't comment on the suit. Univision executives also declined to comment.

Mayor James K. Hahn, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, Council President Alex Padilla and other City Council members, along with Los Angeles Mexican Consul General Martha I. Lara, are scheduled to attend the Monday night event. The ceremony probably will begin with Hahn and Lara ringing a bell, which signals the crowd to begin cheering and shouting, "Viva Mexico!"

El Grito, which means "the cry," is a Mexican tradition that dates to 1810, when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla let out a whoop that signaled the start of the battle for Mexico's independence from colonial Spain.

A ceremony also will be held in Mexico City on Monday featuring Mexican President Vicente Fox.

City officials could not say Tuesday whether Los Angeles had ever entered into similar partnerships with other television networks or stations regarding city-sponsored events, such as Fiesta Broadway, Cinco de Mayo and the Los Angeles Marathon.

Eric Moses, a spokesman for Delgadillo, said the city attorney "has always believed that there should be equal access for the public ceremony and he believes it is an indication of how successful this event has become that there are multiple television networks that want to broadcast it live."

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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