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Less local news for some at Telemundo

November 13, 2006|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Local newscasts on some of the Telemundo Spanish-language television stations will soon be a lot less local.

As part of a companywide, $750-million restructuring by parent NBC Universal, Telemundo TV stations in markets including San Jose, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas and Houston will no longer produce their own newscasts.

Instead, beginning early next year, local news for seven Telemundo stations will originate near Fort Worth. There, anchors and editors will produce three live regionalized newscasts using feeds from reporters and camera operators in the field.

Telemundo's restructuring will eliminate about 110 jobs, primarily at the local stations. However, NBC executives said the company planned to hire 30 people to work at the Fort Worth production facility. That means the net job loss will be about 90 positions -- or about 5% -- of Telemundo's total workforce.

The reductions reflect a trend by media companies to cut newsroom jobs in an effort to boost corporate profit and satisfy shareholders. In recent years, revenue at traditional media outlets has declined as more advertisers have embraced the Internet to reach younger viewers.

But centralizing the news operation has drawn a rebuke of NBC Universal from the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists, which is considering challenging upcoming Telemundo station license renewals.

The group contends that NBC is abrogating its responsibility to serve the public interest and breaking promises made when the network sought federal approval to buy Telemundo. The group plans to meet with NBC executives this week.

"NBC is not doing away with local newscasts at any of its English-language stations, only with its Telemundo properties," the journalists said in a statement. "This leads us to question the company's commitment to the Latino community."

The criticism drew a written response from Jay Ireland, president of NBC Universal television stations, and Don Browne, president of Telemundo Communications Group Inc. They contended that moves were needed to ensure the stations' long-term viability.

"We are fully committed to our mission of inspiring, educating and entertaining the Hispanic community," they wrote. "However, we must also face the realities of our marketplace. We ... have struggled financially with local newscasts in some of our smaller markets."

The restructuring will not change operations at NBC's two Spanish-language stations in Los Angeles -- KVEA-TV Channel 52 and KWHY-TV Channel 22 -- or stations in New York, Miami and Chicago. Those six stations will continue to produce their newscasts locally.

Since NBC's 2002 acquisition of Telemundo for $2 billion, executives have found it more difficult than expected to boost ad rates for the Spanish-language stations.

Executives thought they could capitalize on the exploding growth of the U.S. Latino population and believed higher-quality news and entertainment would boost Telemundo's share of the Spanish-language market.

But Telemundo has continued to struggle against industry giant Univision Communications Inc., based in Los Angeles.

And although NBC and its parent company, General Electric Co., have spent $200 million buying stations for Telemundo, expanding news divisions, building studios and creating more original entertainment programming, they have been losing money at some stations.

"It's been tough for them to compete," said Danielle Gonzales, senior vice president at Tapestry, a multicultural media buying agency based in Chicago.

That's why Ireland sees the consolidated news operation as a double-barreled solution. Not only will the regional operation enable Telemundo to improve its finances, he said, but it also will enable the network to continue to serve Latinos with news and weather for their cities.

"We will have local reporters and local photographers who will cover the news," Ireland said. "That will give us a lot of presence in these markets."

In many cases, he said, the newscasts will contain more news stories, because the producers will be able to draw on the efforts of reporters covering other parts of the region.

"This will give us a lot higher quality than where we are today," Ireland said.

The new Fort Worth facility, dubbed the Telemundo Production Center, will produce three live newscasts a day. There will be a Texas newscast for Telemundo stations in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio; an Arizona version for Phoenix and Tucson; and a West Coast newscast for Las Vegas and San Jose.

The new format should also make it possible to bring regional news to Spanish-language stations in Fresno and Denver, which currently do not have a local newscast. NBC executives said the move would not affect Telemundo's national newscast that originates from Telemundo's headquarters near Miami.

"No matter how they frame it, this means there will be less local news in these markets, not more -- and it's good news for Univision," said Felix Gutierrez, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "NBC should be giving people more reasons to watch Telemundo, not fewer reasons."

Media buyer Gonzales and Teddy Hayes, vice president of media services for La Agencia de Orci & Asociados in Los Angeles, said NBC would have to tread carefully.

"The risk is that local news is supposed to be just that: local," Gonzales said. "If the viewer picks up that it's not as local, then they might be turned off by that. They need to be very careful how they execute this."

Hayes said: "I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude. People are very loyal to their favorite news anchor. If they have a news anchor that's not specific to Dallas, then the people in Dallas might be less inclined to watch."

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meg.james@latimes.com

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