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COLUMN ONE

The Old Versus el Nuevo

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

Hampering Azcarraga Jean's ambitions, however, is an unusual pact forged in 1992. That year, when "El Tigre" joined with Perenchio and Venevision to acquire Univision from Hallmark Cards Inc., the trio hammered out an agreement that gave Univision exclusive use of Televisa's programming in the United States until 2017.

That agreement yielded $105 million in royalties for Televisa last year. But there are those who say Televisa could make more if it was allowed to shop its wildly popular telenovelas to the highest bidder.

Televisa produces 50,000 hours of the soap operas each year and sells them all over the world: from Buenos Aires to Brussels, Bombay to Beijing, and even to the Vatican.

In the United States, they can be seen only on Univision, where each weeknight they fill three prime-time hours. Routinely, they crush the competition, in large part because about 65% of U.S. Latinos are from Mexico or of Mexican descent.

"What Univision represents for immigrants from Mexico is a home away from home," said Monica Gadsby, managing partner of Tapestry, an ad firm specializing in Spanish-language media. "It's that nostalgia for Mexico that gets the viewers to Univision in the first place."

Three years ago, Perenchio set out to show Televisa that Univision, too, could produce successful soaps. He launched his own project: "Te Amare en Silencio" (I Will Love You in Silence). Almost immediately, it was behind schedule and over budget. When early episodes were sent to Perenchio's partners for review, a fatal flaw was easy to spot: Its protagonist was a man, a deviation from Televisa's tried-and-true formula of building the story around a woman.

"It was a disaster," Telemundo's McNamara recalled with a laugh. "The lead character was in love with a woman who could not speak. She was mute!"

Still, Perenchio could not be persuaded to pull the plug. The show went on the air in the crucial 9 p.m. slot in late 2003. Univision's ratings plunged -- the network lost about a quarter of its loyal viewers.

That kind of misstep bolsters Azcarraga Jean's belief that he deserves to hold more sway at Univision.

Until 2017, when the programming pact expires, he said, he plans to explore the U.S. market through magazine and radio ventures and partnerships with Hollywood studios.

Asked whether he hoped his son would join the family business, Azcarraga Jean said it was too early to speculate about the infant's career. But he dismissed the notion that he planned to use his son's U.S. citizenship to win the same for himself.

Under federal immigration law, a U.S.-born child can apply for citizenship for his parents when he or she turns 21. But that doesn't fit with Azcarraga Jean's timetable for expansion into the lucrative U.S. Latino market.

"I would have to wait," he said. "That's not the idea."

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