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Grupo Televisa CEO Emilio Azcarraga Jean has a life like a telenovela

Described by some as a Latin American Rupert Murdoch, Azcarraga is among the most famous men in Mexico, and his company is by far the country's dominant broadcaster.

September 14, 2009|Reed Johnson and Yvonne Villarreal

Practically since the day he was born, in 1968, Emilio Azcarraga Jean has owned one of the most famous names in Mexico.

That's because his father, Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, also known as "El Tigre" (The Tiger), was among the hemisphere's richest men and head of a sprawling media empire.

His empire's cornerstone was Grupo Televisa, the giant Mexican television broadcaster that for decades operated as a monopoly. Although Mexico now has a second national network, TV Azteca, Televisa remains by far the country's dominant broadcaster, with an unrivaled power to influence not only Mexicans' entertainment preferences but also their ideas about politics, business and the rest of the world.

In 1997, the year his father died, Azcarraga Jean at age 29 became Grupo Televisa's chief executive. He has been credited with bringing greater neutrality and professionalism to its news department, which under his father had been an unabashed cheerleader for Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, which represented the country's political establishment for 70 years until 2000.

Azcarraga Jean has been described by some as a Latin American Rupert Murdoch, who took over his father's Australian media company at a similarly young age. Under Azcarraga Jean, Grupo Televisa increasingly has become a powerhouse of global television production, with partnerships in China, the United States, South America and other places. Both Latin American and U.S. media outlets repeatedly have speculated that Azcarraga Jean might apply for U.S. citizenship -- as did Murdoch -- to take control of a U.S. broadcasting company outright. Federal laws stipulate that no more than 25% of a U.S. broadcaster can be controlled by foreign investors.

Grupo Televisa and U.S. Spanish-language broadcaster Univision Communications Inc. this year ended a four-year legal battle with a settlement in which Univision agreed to pay Televisa tens of millions of dollars more in royalties. At risk in the dispute was Univision's continued access to Televisa's telenovelas, or soap operas, an enormously popular and lucrative part of its programming lineup.

Last year, Grupo Televisa reached an agreement to distribute content from NBC Universal's bilingual Telemundo Group Inc. on its broadcast and pay-TV services, as well as through websites and mobile services. That move signaled Televisa's interest in tapping into the fast-growing bilingual and bicultural youth market on both sides of the border.

Azcarraga Jean was in town last week to participate in the Espacio Vanguardia Latina conference at the Getty Center, named for a Grupo Televisa-supported nonprofit group that promotes youth leadership and cross-cultural exchanges in Latin America and the United States. The Times interviewed him at the Getty. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

When is television in Mexico going to open up to more competition? Why should it remain a two-company system with you and TV Azteca?

Everybody says there should be another channel. It's very difficult to produce good-quality content, first. And second, it's not just a question that you get a license and then the television is on. You need to put up antennas and transmitters. It's expensive.

Carlos Slim, the billionaire owner of Mexico's main telecommunications company, says the same thing about opening up his industry. Isn't that a rationalization to keep competitors out?

We have not gotten anything for free. We work a lot.

We need to go back 20 or 30 years [to understand] why there's not a very large amount of big companies in Mexico. Every six years [when a new Mexican president was elected] you had a crisis. So a lot of big companies died, not necessarily because they did a bad job managing their business, but because of outside things like [currency] devaluation and different crises in 1976, '82, '88, '94. I would love to have in Mexico five or six or 10 telecommunications competing companies. But it couldn't happen because a lot of people went bankrupt on the way.

Competition is the thing that needs to open in Mexico in a lot of ways. Competition needs to open in the U.S. in a lot of ways. I don't know why they say telecommunications cannot be open to anybody that's not a U.S. citizen or a Mexican citizen or a Chinese citizen. I believe that there's a lot of protectionism in what we call the First World.

Speaking of citizenship, do you have any plans to change yours?

I spend time [in the United States] because I have businesses in the U.S. and a lot of Latin American business is run out of Miami [where he has a residence]. But I live in Mexico. And I never intended on changing my citizenship.

It seems as if Televisa is moving away from the production-export model that you've had with Spanish-language Univision, which has been heavily dependent on telenovelas, or Spanish-language soap operas. Now you seem to be targeting a younger demographic that's likelier to be bilingual and bicultural and want a wider variety of programming.

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