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Univision's new image is star of the party

May 17, 2007|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Univision Communications Inc.'s new owners threw a coming-out party here Wednesday that made clear that the Spanish-language network has bid adios to its tight-lipped ways.

For the first time in 15 years, a Univision chief executive personally addressed the crowd of advertisers that gathered in New York for network television's annual upfront meetings. The network's goal was to woo advertisers who were looking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

"This morning marks the start of something new," Chief Executive Joe Uva said in the gleaming Time Warner Center in midtown Manhattan.

In fact, the biggest buzz surrounding Univision's presentation wasn't the plunging necklines, stiletto heels or bulging biceps of its hot young stars. Nor was it that Univision is now the fifth-largest network in the U.S., behind CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC.

Rather, it was Univision's public transformation in the wake of its $12.3-billion sale in late April to an investment group whose partners include Saban Capital Group, Providence Equity Partners and Texas Pacific Group.

Univision's previous chairman and CEO, Bel-Air billionaire A. Jerrold Perenchio, shunned the spotlight and forced his executives to do likewise. But, Uva said, that closed-mouth culture meant the company wasn't singing its praises enough, which in turn made it harder to grab its fair share of the advertising pie.

"Our goal was to deliver a message to advertisers that there is a new day dawning at Univision," said Uva, a former top advertising buyer.

In his presentation, Uva made it known that Univision's real stars are its advertisers and passionate fans. Univision gave trophies to advertisers whose commercials were voted the best by the company's online audience, with awards going to Ford Motor Co., the Subway sandwich chain and Allstate Corp.

In addition, 14 devoted Univision viewers were flown to New York for the week. They sat on stage and gushed over such Univision stars as Don Francisco [whose real name is Mario Kreutzberger] and news anchor Jorge Ramos. They also met actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, who is producing and writing a telenovela for Univision, and were serenaded by her husband, Latin singing sensation Marc Anthony.

Uva's point: to show advertisers firsthand that Univision has some of the most passionate fans in television. Univision said that 44% of its audience made buying decisions based on the ads they saw on TV, whereas only 10% of viewers for English-language networks do.

"It was good, it was vibrant and it was big," said ad buyer Tim Spengler of Initiative Media. "Everyone should be paying attention to what these guys do."

With the acquisition, Univision has moved its corporate headquarters from Los Angeles to New York, where Uva is based. After the presentation, Uva said that Univision planned to sell its music division and some of its radio stations.

The buyout group, which also includes Madison Dearborn Partners and Thomas H. Lee Partners, needs to pay down the $10.3 billion in debt taken on to finance the purchase.

In October, Univision will introduce a Sunday morning news and public affairs program to be hosted by Ramos. The new show is aimed in part at cashing in on the political ad money up for grabs for the 2008 presidential election.

"We need that political program to interview presidents, presidential candidates and to discuss the issues that Hispanic people think are most important," Ramos said. "There are 12 million Hispanic voters. If next year's election is close -- and it probably will be -- then Latinos will decide the election."

And in another signal that Univision had changed, Uva and billionaire investor Haim Saban struck a more harmonious chord with Grupo Televisa, Mexico's largest broadcaster and producer of the wildly popular telenovelas that Univision airs.

Televisa and Perenchio had a particularly contentious relationship. The Mexico City company sued Univision to terminate its long-term programming arrangement. That trial is scheduled for later this year.

After Wednesday's presentation, Saban buttonholed Televisa's top business executive in the hall behind the stage. "See, we are getting along," he said. "Haim Saban and Televisa -- we're not fighting."

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meg.james@latimes.com

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