Telemundo builds on novelas

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What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, Spanish-language TV network Telemundo was unveiling a new broadcast lineup -- a retreat from a failed plan to target younger bilingual and acculturated Hispanics. That plan included more novelas, a mainstay among Hispanic viewers, and programming designed to lure core 18-to-54-year-old Spanish-dominant adults.

The result: A surge in viewership among adult viewers from sign-on to signoff, says Steve Levin, exec VP at Telemundo.

Intent not to mess with apparent success, Mr. Levin says the network will undergo only light adjustments to its 2000 lineup. "It's been a change back to our roots," he says.

BIG SWITCH

Telemundo's bounce is making agency media executives and marketers buoyant. For years, Univision has been the only significant buy for Spanish-language TV.

The network essentially controlled marketer's choices. Dot-com companies were hamstrung since Univision, which was preparing to launch its own online offering, refused to accept dot-com advertising.

This year, Telemundo, Fox Sports World Espanol, Gems Television and even Univision sister cable network Galavision give more options than ever before to media buyers keen on broadening their buying opportunities.

This year's upfront, estimated to be roughly $650 million between Univision and Telemundo, an increase of $100 million over 1999 spending, will sport a different attitude.

PRE-UPFRONT ROAD SHOW

Telemundo executives have been visiting marketers and agencies since March in a pre-upfront road show to preview coming attractions.

Agency executives say lineup changes include the removal of paid infomercial programming from all major time slots and the creation of a two-hour morning show, a la NBC's "Today." The weekday morning kids' programming block will be moved to Saturday to replace paid programming. This will put Telemundo head-to-head against Univision's three-hour weekday morning show, "Despierta America" ("Wake Up America").

While higher production costs make the shows risky, they are a better lead-in for mid-morning adult programming, buyers say.

They also expect Telemundo to increase its novela offerings, including a noon-to-2 p.m. block.

Drawing on President-CEO Jim McNamara's international programming expertise, Telemundo also will put Latin American novelas in the 7-11 p.m. weeknight period.

Mr. Levin also promises an overhaul of early and late fringe. While he would not discuss specifics, agency media executives say the network would revamp news expose show "Ocurrio Asi" ("This Is How It Happened") in the early-fringe period, and late fringe could include a variety or entertainment show.

ROLL OF THE DICE

"Last year's upfront was a major roll of the dice. We were all reeling from the failure of the new programming strategy, and we didn't know how [Telemundo executives] were going to turn this around," says Laura Marella, VP-media director with Casanova Pendrill, Irvine, Calif., which represents clients General Mills, Home Depot and Coors Brewing Co.

For its part, Univision would not discuss its upfront programming. Agency executives familiar with the network's upfront plans say little change is expected in its fare.

The network likely will "stick to what has worked for them," says Meg Bernot-Rodriguez, senior VP-director of media services with Young & Rubicam's Bravo Group, New York. While Univision has lost some ground to Telemundo over the past year, generally, she says, "It's been a good formula."

Galavision, which reaches 18.3 million U.S. households, including 3 million in Spanish-dominant markets,will debut its new lineup in a series of June presentations in Miami, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles. Likened to an Hispanic version of USA Network or TNT, Galavision targets Hispanic males 18 to 34, in both Spanish-dominant and acculturated households.

GALAVISION PUSHES SPORTS

Through 2001, the network will debut five new sports shows and four new "bicultural" shows: "Al Desnudo," a weekly half-hour reality-based investigative program, similar to MTV's "True Life" series, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; "GalaScene," a weekly bilingual lifestyle show for young, urban Latinos Thursdays at 7 p.m.; "VideoMix," a weekly hourlong music video program targeting the 12-to-34 market on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.; and "Con Cierta Intimidad," a weekly hour-long musical program akin to MTV's "Unplugged," featuring artists performing in intimate settings, on Wednesdays at 7 p.m.

The network has also signed several Latin American soccer series: World Cup 2002 qualifying rounds, Women's Gold Cup, Champion's Cup, FIFA U-17 (under 17) World Cup qualifiers and Pro Beach Soccer. Its sports lineup will include "Contacto Deportivo," a Sunday-through-Friday night Spanish-language ESPN "SportsCenter"-style show with a heavy emphasis on soccer. It will air at 11 p.m., with Sunday through Thursday night episodes repeating the following day at 9 a.m.

The network will debut "Galamiguitos" ("Gala's Little Friends"), a 90-minute weekday block of children's programming starting at 10 a.m.

AGGRESSIVE POSITIONING

With the renewed vigor and competition from both broadcast and cable networks, agency executives are anticipating more aggressive positioning this year, says Ms. Bernot-Rodriguez.

Agencies also are anticipating higher costs and a move toward pricing parity with the general market, she says, akin to what African-American network Black Entertainment Television has pushed for in recent years.

"As in the past two seasons of upfronts, there's going to be a bit of a gap between what we want for our clients and what the networks are looking for," says Ms. Bernot-Rodriguez, whose top clients include AT&T Corp., Sears, Roebuck & Co. and U.S. Army.

The hope now is to see the universe of Hispanic viewers grow, says Monica Gadsby, senior VP-director of Hispanic media with Leo Group's Starcom USA, Chicago.

Loss of viewers to general-market TV is a constant concern, says Ms. Gadsby, who was awaiting May ratings to see whether Univision had increased its share, and if Telemundo continued on its upward swing.

"Then we have growth in the total pie, which I think from the advertiser's perspective is the best news we can have," she says.

Ms. Marella, a 15-year veteran in Hispanic media, notes, "One of the exciting things about this kind of stance is [Telemundo] is behaving more confidently. It's been ugly the past couple of years."

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