Great Expectations

It has been a long time coming, but the “other Spanish network” is enjoying a makeover that is winning over its critics. A new owner, changing management and cold hard cash are putting credibility back into Telemundo. And Univision’s recent feud with Sen. Marco Rubio isn’t hurting, either.

With Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal, announced December 2009, came great expectations. Following a public comment period in which numerous Hispanic organizations gave their views, the FCC in January approved the merger. Comcast has a 51 percent controlling interest in NBC Universal and by extension is now at the controls at Telemundo. LULAC was one of several organizations that gave Comcast its blessing. But the question remained---would Comcast deliver? As the network approaches one year under Comcast control, the signs are upbeat.

“I think that Comcast’s acquisition of Telemundo is strengthening the network’s management and resources, and putting the company in a situation where it can better compete with Univision,” said Brent A. Wilkes, national executive director at LULAC and a member of the Comcast Advisory Council. “Comcast is a TV media company and knows how to operate a network much better than GE. It will be able to leverage its dominance in the cable market to boost Telemundo’s viewership and will be better able to integrate Telemundo talent throughout the Comcast/NBC corporate structure. We are already seeing this play out with the expansion of local news and community programming that had been reduced by GE.”

In August, Telemundo announced plans to boost local news and public affairs programming by 25 percent at eight of the 15 stations it owned, an initiative that launched in the summer and would be fully implemented by January 2012. The expansion began with the revival of “Buenos Dias Los Angeles” on KVEA. Over the fourth quarter, Telemundo is scheduling monthly roll-outs of locally-produced public affairs programs in New York, Miami, Houston, Chicago, Denver, Dallas and Phoenix.

The expansion also includes twice-nightly newscasts in Denver and a “Buenos Dias Houston” fashioned after the Los Angeles project. Overall, Telemundo’s new programming totals more than 1,000 hours of additional news and public affairs shows annually, about what it promised.

“This meets the commitment Comcast had made when we were doing the merger,” said Alfredo Richard, senior vice president of communications at Telemundo in Miami.“We’ve been investing already before that in terms of HD technology and transmitters earlier this year.”

Telemundo was also hurt by the recession. “Local markets were hit hard in 2008, but since then we’ve been able to come back to those markets and do some investment,” Richard said.

In July, Comcast was already claiming it was surpassing its commitment to the FCC. It was expanding carriage of eight Hispanic networks by about 14 million total subscribers, more than 4 million above its promise. It did so by adding channels to new cable systems and markets. Telemundo was among the eight Spanish-language networks Comcast added to markets.

Not every market, however, can expect to see significant changes. San Antonio, for example, is one of the largest Hispanic markets in the country. But Telemundo is not adding local programming; this is a Telemundo affiliate owned by ZGS Communications of Arlington, VA. “We invest primarily on stations we own. We work very closely with (affiliates), but ultimately they have their own owners and they make their own decisions,” Richard said.

One sign of renewed confidence in Telemundo is its ability to attract talent. Jose Cancela, head of the Miami media consulting firm Hispanic USA, joined the Los Angeles station in August as general manager. In the 1990s, Cancela was chief operating officer of Telemundo Station Group. Cancela declined to comment for this article, but when the hire was announced, Telemundo Station Group president, Ronald J. Gordon, said Cancela’s “deep knowledge and understanding of the U.S. Hispanic audience will be a tremendous asset to KVEA, as we continue to invest and grow our station to better serve the Los Angeles Hispanic community.”

And in late September, Emilio Romano was named president. He replaced Don Browne who retired in April. Romano was chief executive at Grupo Mexicana de Aviacion, the Mexican airline. Prior to that, he was an executive with GrupoTelevisa. Romano said the demographic trends for the U.S. Hispanic market make this a community well poised for explosive growth, and Telemundo’s marriage with NBC Universal under Comcast provides “the ideal partners to leverage this growth.”

As positive as Telemundo’s new-found friends are for itself and the Hispanic community, the changes also bode well for Hispanic journalists.Telemundo announced, for example, an extension and expansion of its partnership with the National Football League through 2013. This includes simulcasting games in Spanish and various sports programming specials.

Michele Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), called the changes a tremendous opportunity for local news and sports journalists. “Spanish language media is growing at a time when English print and broadcast media are losing audience. We’re very excited, and applaud Comcast for recognizing this trend,” she said.

While Comcast may be getting good grades, not everyone is sure they deserve an A+. Advertisers will generally look optimistically at Telemundo’s future, but some wonder if there isn’t too much emphasis on Spanish-language programming for Hispanics. Andrew Speyer, head of strategy at New York-based Hispanic advertising firm Wing, noted how Univision recently announced the launch of three new channels, all in Spanish. He wondered if it would be a mistake for Telemundo to copy a Spanish-only strategy.

“If I were at Telemundo and I suddenly had an infusion of cash, I would think about a new channel that might not be in Spanish but would be for the Hispanic market,” Speyer said. “The bulk of TV consumption among Hispanics across the entire audience is in English and Spanish. The question is where’s the smart money? Should it focus on culture, or just language?”

Salcedo tended to agree: “As time has gone on and people try to figure out how to enter the Hispanic media market, I think their assumptions become much more nuanced. We’re mostly English dominant---those of us that have been here a long time. And we’re an economic powerhouse.”

By Adolfo Pesquera