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A Hollywood Player Who Owns the Game

A. Jerrold Perenchio has made billions with great instincts, an iron will and a very low profile. Now he's selling Univision -- his way.

June 20, 2006|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

"Jerry was like my father, my mentor, my brother. But it was like he pulled a gun and shot me," Barba said from Miami, where he now markets slot machines that feature the likenesses of such fading celebrities as Tito Puente and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. "It was a business decision without any human consideration."

Rely on your instincts and common sense. If you go against them you generally regret it.

The idea was brilliant in its simplicity. Pit an aging trash-talking male tennis pro against a younger, female champion. Market it as a "Battle of the Sexes." Then sit back and watch the dollars pour in.

It was 1973 when Perenchio masterminded the on-court clash between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The event became a cultural milestone. It also was a moneymaking machine.

"He said, 'We have to market this as a confrontation between male chauvinism and women's liberation,' " Horn recalled. "He has that vision thing."

It would be difficult to find a more Zelig-like character than Perenchio. Whether it's sports, entertainment, politics or philanthropy, he has had a hand in many of the major events of the last half-century.

By some estimates, he has given away about $50 million, benefiting UCLA and Walt Disney Concert Hall, among other nonprofits. And records show that, since 1998, he and his wife have contributed an additional $18 million to politicians -- Republicans and Democrats -- and their causes.

"Jerry is the walking embodiment of the history of Hollywood and modern Los Angeles," said Henry Cisneros, a former Clinton administration Housing secretary who was Univision's president for four years. "He has been present in the worlds of many of the most prominent people."

Perenchio and his wife are the largest landholders in Malibu. And remember the Bel-Air mansion that the Clampetts inhabited in the 1960s TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies"? They live in it, though it is far more grandiose than it was when Granny ruled the roost. The couple has spent tens of millions of dollars buying adjacent lots and fashioning the home into a Versailles-like palace adorned with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings.

Nancy Reagan is his next-door neighbor. Former L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan is a friend, as is tenor Placido Domingo.

His poker buddies include CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bob Daly (a former Warner Bros. studio chief and Dodger chairman), producer Larry Gordon, retired music executive Mo Ostin and actor Dustin Hoffman.

Hollywood players call him for advice. Producer Brian Grazer, for example, who with director Ron Howard made such movies as "The Da Vinci Code" and "A Beautiful Mind," said he relied on Perenchio's blunt counsel.

"There are these Perenchio-isms," Grazer said. "He'll say things like, 'Look, you guys are in a tough spot. It's going to be rough but you've just got to strap your balls on.' "

Cisneros agreed.

"Jerry always told us: 'Aim for the center of the bull's-eye. Don't look for the general proximity. Aim for the center, and you will likely hit your target,' " Cisneros recalled. "Even though he might want something really bad, he was very disciplined. He would take a pass rather than do a deal that wasn't right."

Perenchio's patient pursuit of Univision illustrates that point. He first became interested in 1986, when the Federal Communications Commission threatened to revoke the licenses of the stations that formed the Spanish International Network, which was controlled by Emilio Azcarraga Milmo of Mexico. The U.S. prohibits foreigners from owning broadcast stations, so Azcarraga had to sell.

Perenchio didn't speak Spanish (and still doesn't). But with opportunity knocking, he tried to buy Azcarraga's five stations north of the border, then balked when bankers were brought in to round up other bidders. Perenchio, an associate said, does not participate in auctions.

Instead, Hallmark Cards Inc. bought the stations and network for $550 million, renaming it Univision. But quickly, Hallmark found itself drowning in debt.

Azcarraga saw a chance to get back what he'd lost. He teamed with Venezuelan media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, but as foreign citizens, they needed a U.S. partner. The pair invited Perenchio to lunch at Azcarraga's Hollywood Hills home. Between sips of tequila and spicy soup, the trio came to terms, according to people who were there.

In 1992, they bought Univision from Hallmark for $550 million.

Azcarraga was already Mexico's only media mogul -- his Grupo Televisa empire is the world's most prolific producer of Spanish-language programming. But those who thought he would rule Univision didn't know Perenchio.

Although he was just a one-third partner, Perenchio's U.S. citizenship put him in the driver's seat. It had taken six years, but he was now the boss.

Typically hands-on, Perenchio helped draft the partnership agreement, which laid the groundwork for Univision to become the dominant Spanish-language network in the U.S.

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