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The Old Versus el Nuevo

COLUMN ONE

The young leader of Spanish media giant Grupo Televisa has his sights on Univision, but the L.A. billionaire in charge isn't budging.

March 10, 2005|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Back in 1961, Mexico's leading media mogul bought a television station in San Antonio, certain there was big money to be made from the millions of mexicanos moving north of the border.

He was right. Emilio Azcarraga Vidaurreta started buying more stations, laying the foundation for the first Spanish- language television network in the United States. But in 1986, federal laws limiting foreign ownership of broadcast stations forced the Azcarraga family to cede control.

Now, Azcarraga Vidaurreta's 37-year-old grandson is out to regain what his family lost. Emilio Azcarraga Jean, who owns the Spanish-speaking world's largest media company, Grupo Televisa, has made no secret of his desire to dominate the U.S. Latino market.

He has set his sights on the multibillion-dollar broadcasting and entertainment conglomerate known as Univision Communications Inc. -- the company that his father's father founded 44 years ago.

"We have built it from scratch," Azcarraga Jean said in an interview. Although Televisa and Univision have forged a fruitful partnership, he said, eventually "it makes a lot of sense to try to combine the two companies."

His path to power is blocked, however, by a man twice his age: A. Jerrold Perenchio, the iron-willed chairman and chief executive of Univision.

The 74-year-old Los Angeles billionaire -- a former talent agent and boxing promoter who also is one of California's biggest political contributors and art collectors -- has spent more than a decade building Univision into a fortress. The Century City-based company's three networks command more than 75% of the U.S. audience for Spanish-language TV.

Perenchio, who does not speak Spanish, owns 11.5% of the company's common stock but has super-voting shares that give him 56% control. Lately, he has used that power to unilaterally install one of his closest allies as Univision's new president, prompting a backlash from some on the board.

Analysts say Perenchio is not about to start sharing power, particularly not with Azcarraga Jean, whose Mexico City-based Televisa owns 10.9% of Univision and provides more than a third of its programming. Perenchio is known for closely following his own 20 "Rules of the Road" -- a printed list, distributed to Univision executives -- which includes the admonition: "Take Options, Never Give Them."

Perenchio "is clearly in control," said James Marsh, a media analyst with S.G. Cowen & Co. "But his actions suggest that he feels threatened." Perenchio, who routinely shuns media attention, declined to be interviewed for this article.

In the short term, the Univision chief cannot be unseated by Azcarraga Jean. U.S. law prohibits the Televisa chief, a Mexican citizen, from holding more than a 25% stake in a U.S. broadcasting company. Still, Perenchio may have reason to worry.

In the long term, Azcarraga Jean seems prepared to reinvent himself, even if it means stepping away from his heritage. As Latin America's most powerful media executive, he has suggested that he might go so far as to seek U.S. citizenship if it would help him gain the upper hand.

"We're still looking at that," he said.

At stake are billions of dollars in advertising revenue. As the U.S. Latino market swells, and as the ranks of middle- and upper-income Latinos continue to grow, more major companies are reaching out to Spanish- speaking consumers.

Already, the buying power of the 40 million Latinos in the United States -- which by some estimates is about $1 trillion a year -- far exceeds the gross domestic product of Mexico, a country of 105 million people.

With so much money up for grabs, the struggle for control of Univision seems as inevitable as it is bitter.

Last month, Perenchio brought long-simmering tensions to a boil when he unexpectedly installed Ray Rodriguez, his longtime lieutenant, as Univision president and chief operating officer.

Azcarraga Jean, who is vice chairman of Univision's board, was furious. In his view, Perenchio had sidestepped a formal search to ensure that the job went to a personal ally.

At a testy, four-hour meeting in Los Angeles, representatives from Televisa and Venevision, the Venezuela media company that owns 13% of Univision, accused Perenchio of running Univision like a fiefdom instead of a public company.

Univision's board lacks independent voices, Perenchio's critics charged. Then they accused him of being irresponsible to shareholders by refusing to come up with a succession plan.

Perenchio angrily told board members that he planned to remain Univision's chief executive indefinitely, according to a person who was in the room.

Last week, Perenchio delivered that same message to Wall Street. During a conference call with analysts, one of his executives read a statement in which Perenchio downplayed Univision's conflict with Televisa over such issues as royalties and programming. He called the disagreements "some rain on a very strong and weatherproof roof."

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