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Univision prevails against Grupo Televisa in fight over telenovela episodes on the Internet

A federal judge in Los Angeles rules that a programming agreement the companies struck in 1992 gives Univision exclusive rights to broadcast the Spanish-language soap operas in the U.S.

July 18, 2009|Meg James

A federal judge in Los Angeles on Friday handed Univision Communications a major victory in its hard-fought battle with its programming partner from Mexico, underscoring Univision's exclusive rights in the U.S. to the wildly popular Spanish-language soap operas that fuel its huge ratings.

Grupo Televisa, Mexico's largest entertainment company, had sought the judge's permission to transmit to U.S. audiences over the Internet episodes of the telenovelas, or soap operas, that Televisa produces in Mexico City.

But in a 21-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez concluded that a long-term programming agreement that Univision and Televisa struck in 1992 "bars Televisa from sending programs to the United States by any means, including the Internet."

Televisa said it would appeal.

The ruling is Univision's latest triumph in its contentious relationship with Televisa. In January, the two companies settled another long-running lawsuit in which Televisa had attempted to bring an early end to the 1992 programming agreement. Televisa had wanted to shop its shows to another broadcaster.

With the latest court decision, Univision appears to have locked up the rights to Televisa's popular soap operas through 2017, when the programming pact between the two companies expires.

Televisa's low-cost programs provide as much as 40% of Univision's revenue, and the Spanish-language broadcaster has been banking on those advertising dollars to help make payments on a $10-billion mountain of debt stemming from 2007, when the company went private in a leveraged buyout.

"We are very pleased with today's ruling," Univision Chief Executive Joe Uva said in a statement. "Univision will continue to provide its audience with the world's best Spanish-language programming."

Univision said it would explore its options to provide Televisa's programs on Univision's website. For the last three years, Televisa and Univision have put off the thorny issue of Internet rights to the programming until the matter could be decided by the judge.

In the meantime, neither company made available to U.S. Internet audiences episodes of Televisa's popular soaps. Nonetheless, pirated episodes of such shows as "Cuidado Con el Angel" ("Don't Mess With the Angel") have popped up on such video websites as YouTube -- demonstrating a large appetite among Internet users for the spicy programming.

Televisa pointed out that the ruling did not authorize Univision to put the shows online.

"Univision does not have the right to transmit Televisa content over the Internet, and Televisa would vigorously oppose any such frivolous claim by Univision that it does," Televisa said.

Univision had been worried that if Televisa provided its shows to U.S. audiences over the Internet, it would destroy the commercial value of the programs. Televisa broadcasts the same shows in Mexico several months before they air on one of the Univision networks, and if viewers knew the ending of the serials they would be less inclined to wait to see the shows on TV.

But Univision countered that exclusivity was the cornerstone of its pact with Televisa. The star witness during the Internet rights trial was former Univision Chairman A. Jerrold Perenchio, who testified via a videotape made several years ago. Perenchio ran Univision for 15 years and orchestrated the sale of the company two years ago to a group of private investors including Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban.

meg.james@latimes.com

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