Spanish-language TV has been a complicated space for many U.S. advertisers: There's too little understanding of the Hispanic consumer, and the language barrier prevents many chief marketing officers from appreciating the cultural relevance of programming they way they easily recognize the buzz around an English-language show like "This Is Us."
That dynamic and others resulted for a time in a shift in ad dollars from networks like Univision and Telemundo toward English-language media where brands believed they could also reach the massive Hispanic community.
But the tactic as executed often didn't meet expectations, and now some marketers are poised to re-enter the Spanish-language marketplace during this year's TV upfronts, when networks look to sell a bulk of their commercial time for the next season.
"The 'total market' approach went wrong," says Gonzalo Del Fa, president of GroupM Multicultural. "Now we are all trying to explain that total market doesn't mean putting money in the same place or one space and it is going to work for everyone."
"The first three months of the year we had conversations with clients that we haven't had in a while, but we haven't seen action yet. I think the action will come in the upfronts. We will see newcomers we haven't seen in a while," Del Fa says.
Consumer-package goods, especially those in the food business and retail, are expected to be especially strong in the marketplace, he says.
After decades of lagging behind Univision, Telemundo is well positioned to capture a meaningful share of these dollars. It has essentially closed the gap with Univision in advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 viewers in weekday primetime and parent NBC Universal is throwing money at the network to create content that's more relatable to U.S.-born Hispanics. It's preparing for what's expected to be a big summer, when for the first time it will carry the FIFA World Cup, which aired on Univision for the last three decades. And it's getting ready to unveil a new $250 million state-of-the-art headquarters in Miami next week, designed to produce content for all platforms under one roof.
The momentum at Telemundo comes as Univision deals with a bevy of corporate issues: It has recently abandoned plans to go public, is working on restructuring its business and will say farewell to CEO Randy Falco at the end of the year, one year earlier than planned.
Telemundo first surpassed Univision in weekday prime time in the 18-to-49 demographic during the 2016-17 season. This season, the two are tied.
Cesar Conde, chairman of NBC Universal's International Group and Telemundo Enterprises, credits the network's recent success to making content for U.S. Hispanics.
"Our focus is developing content solely for the U.S. Hispanic community," Conde says. "We want to produce something authentic to the U.S. Hispanic experience here."
Univision continues to draw the most total viewers in primetime, a feat it has accomplished for the past 25 years, averaging 1.6 million total viewers season-to-date compared with 1.3 million for Telemundo. Its portfolio of networks, which aside from the flagship broadcaster include Galavision, UniMas and Univision Deportes Network, captured 67 percent of the relevant audience during February sweeps, compared to 33 percent for Telemundo, according to a Univision spokesman. And its sports network, Univision Deportes, was the No. 3 sports network, regardless of language, among 18-to-49-year-olds during the first quarter.
Conde, who joined Telemundo in 2013 from Univision, where he had been network president, is reportedly among the candidates being considered as a replacement for Univision's Falco. "I couldn't be happier at NBCU Telemundo where we are building what we think is the Hispanic media company of the future," Conde says when asked if he has been approached for the job.
Both networks are experiencing the same ratings erosion plaguing the rest of the TV space: Univision's total audience is down 16 percent from last year and Telemundo is off 19 percent. And it's worse in the core demo, with Univision down 29 percent and Telemudo down 17 percent.
With Telemundo's median age of its viewer hovering in the mid-to-late 30s, much younger than its English-language broadcast brethren, it has become especially critical for Telemundo to find ways to reach younger Hispanics, many of whom were born in the U.S. and speak English fluently.
Historically, Spanish-language media would take some of the best programming from outside of the U.S., like Mexico, and bring it to the states. "It's a strategy that worked pretty well for many years," Conde says. Those typically take the form of telenovelas, love stories whose plot lines often involve a love triangle and run for one uninterrupted season of about 120 episodes.
But over the last several years, Telemundo has swapped telenovelas for what they have dubbed "Super Series," grittier dramas with multiple seasons whose plots deal with topical issues like immigration, family and crime. These Super Series have a more film-like quality and edgier storylines with strong characters that break stereotypes, and many feature females as heroines, Conde says. Just five years ago the network was only doing these types of shows sporadically, but they have now become an overwhelming part of Telemundo's schedule.
Telemundo has also seen some success in the 8 p.m. hour with "biomusicals," scripted biographies of Latin music icons. And it will debut its first miniseries, a prison thriller, out of its new production studio, TIS, this summer.
Univision, whose programming is produced by Mexican TV company Groupo Televisa, has taken a bit longer to diversify its content. This year it did set out to modernize its telenovelas, airing fewer episodes for some, giving them a faster pace and including more complex characters than the traditional heroes and villains.
It has also received plenty of buzz for its drama "El Chapo," a co-production with Netflix about the Mexican drug lord.
Univision has also introduced subscription products to attract younger Hispanic viewers who might not be signing up for traditional pay-TV packages. Telemundo doesn't have any similar direct-to-consumer offerings coming, Conde says.
Telemundo has spent the last year working to grab an equal share of ad dollars as Univision. While there's a smaller ratings gap between the two, Univision continues to snag a bigger piece of the overall pie, says Laura Molen, exec VP of lifestyle and Hispanic ad sales at NBCU.
During this year's upfronts, Conde will look to emphasize the economic prowess of the Hispanic demographic and the network's ability to "transcend language."
The World Cup is Telemundo's biggest focus this year. In 2011, it outbid Univision for the 2018 and 2022 Spanish-language rights in a deal worth a reported $600 million. It has sold about 80 percent of the related ad time for the 2018 tournament across all platforms, Molen says, mostly without an influx of official FIFA sponsors.
And next year, Telemundo will air the FIFA Women's World Cup. In preparation for that, and as women's rights take center stage amid the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Telemundo will feature the first-ever female sportscaster during the men's tournament and will begin marketing the women's Cup during the men's competition.
Molen and her team have been touting the ability for marketers to reach Hispanics through both Spanish and English-language content across NBCU's portfolio of broadcast and cable networks, which include Bravo, E! and USA.
NBCU has also been investing in research through the newly formed Client Advocacy Team to help marketers better understand the Hispanic marketplace and the opportunities for their brands.
"NBC has leverage with Telemundo that Univision doesn't," Del Fa says, referring to NBCU's ability to reach Hispanics through both Spanish and English-language programming within one conglomerate.
"What Univision does that sets us apart from everyone else, is that all our marketing begins with our consumer and cultural insights in order to gauge what will resonate with our viewers," a company spokesman answers. "We know what's important to them, what they value, and most importantly how to speak to them in-language and in-culture."
Despit trailing Univision for decades, Molen says she wants Univision to succeed. "We are stronger together," she says. "If a marketer is going to invest in making Spanish-language content, they don't just want one place to put it."