Univision steps up at upfront

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At its upfront presentation to more than 900 U.S. Hispanic agency executives and their clients last week, Univision began positioning itself as the Spanish-language Viacom or AOL Time Warner, able to deliver multiple media in a single buy.

In addition to the Univision channel that already draws 77% of the Hispanic audience, the Spanish-language network will launch a second, still unnamed channel in January 2002. Its eight-month-old Internet portal, Univision.com, already has 5 million unique users and reaches 80% of Spanish-language Web surfers. And Univision-owned cable network Galavision has grown from 3 million to 4 million subscribers in the past year. The newest piece is Univision Music Group, formed last month after the company purchased a Mexican record company.

"Clients want more and more the ability to make one decision," said Tom McGarrity, Univision's president of network sales. "We can do it in Spanish language."

The new channel's mission will be to steal viewers from English-language networks. It will also offer an alternative to the main, soap opera-heavy Univision channel by targeting men and young people. "At any time, 40% to 45% of Spanish-dominant viewers are watching English-language TV," said Ray Rodriguez, Univision's president-chief operating officer.

Despite the new ventures, Univision has been steadily trimming staff this year. Mr. Rodriguez said he thought the cuts were less than 100 people. He also denied speculation that Walt Disney Co. will take a stake in Univision, an attractive acquisition target. "We don't need it," he said.

The star of the Hispanic upfront was, unsurprisingly, the 2000 U.S. census. Univision opened its presentation with clips from English-language news programs like ABC's Nightline focusing on the fast-growing U.S. Hispanic population. Now Hispanic broadcasters are hoping that numbers like 35.3 million Hispanics with $444 billion in buying power will help drive upfront sales.

"Most of my clients tell me they're cutting back on general market [budgets], but none are cutting back on Hispanic," said Alex Lopez Negrete, president-CEO of independent Hispanic agency Lopez Negrete, Houston. "They realize they've underspent on Hispanics as a group and as part of their current customer base."

Last year, Univision posted upfront sales of $501 million and No. 2 network Telemundo, which is billing itself as the fastest growing Spanish-language network, saw about $175 million.

In prime time, both networks are relying heavily on the dramatic hour-long daily soap operas called novelas. Drawing on that heritage, Telemundo is introducing the first U.S. Hispanic reality show, called "Protagonistas." Starring 16 aspiring thespians who must live together in a TV studio, the survivor chosen by the audience will be rewarded by a role in Telemundo's next novela.

Conspicuous by its absence from upfront activities was the Azteca America network that Mexico's TV Azteca and Pappas Telecasting are scheduled to launch next month with coverage of 40% of the U.S. Hispanic market. Instead, the network held informal meetings with agencies. Peter Chrisanthopoulos, Azteca America's president-chief operating officer, said that he has advertisers signed up, although he wouldn't identify them. Several media directors at U.S. Hispanic agencies said that Azteca America was initially offering free airtime; Mr. Chrisanthopoulos wouldn't comment on how deals are structured.

Unlike the general market, the Hispanic upfront includes radio, at least on the party circuit. Radio Unica used its big bash to push national radio as an alternative to Spanish-language TV.

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