MADRID — A new gold rush is transforming Latin American broadcasting into a latter-day El Dorado. Programmers, cable operators and franchise holders are scrambling to stake their claims.

The lode is being sought not on the banks of Lake Titicaca, but in the estimated five million homes paying for cable and MMDS programming.

Conservative calculations, based on five million cable homes paying a fee of $ 20 a month, point to a gross revenue of about $ 100 million per month in billings to homeowners. Cable systems in turn pay roughly 25% of this coin to program suppliers, though 30% or more is not uncommon.

Satellite/cable feeds

The 25 satellite/cable feeds listed in Variety a year ago have mushroomed, at last count, to almost 60 (see chart).

Many of these services will drop by the wayside as competition in providing programming heats up further. Feeds range from the potent HBO-Ole with feature films from Warner Bros. and Columbia to a little channel specializing in tourism run by a small-town newspaper in the northern Argentine province of Misiones.

Fox TV’s Latin topper, Elie Wahba, comments: “Fox sales to cable accounted for 30% of total programming sold to Latin customers last year, compared to 10% in 1992.”

And Columbia TV’s Latin manager Helios Alvarez says, “It’s a virgin market that’ll expand enormously. In 1994, Col sales to pay-TV will account for 20% of revenue. In the very near future, basic pay-TV will be 50% or more of the market.”

Scramble’s on

No wonder everyone’s scrambling to get on to transponders and setting up regional offices in Latin America. Says Gary McBride, CEO of Gems, the Miami-based distaff channel: “We’ve recently sold into 50 new cable systems and are now running more international product, in addition to Radio Caracas novelas. We’ve set up offices in Argentina, and have reps in five other cities.”

Nowhere was the boom in satellite/cable development as evident as in last November’s Buenos Aires cable show, where 120 stands vied for cable operators’ attention in a market that has grown to be the second largest in the world, with 3 million subscribers.

At that time, a dizzying number of new feeds were announced, some by big U.S. banners like the Discovery Channel, others by local Argentine entrepreneurs. Three or four other U.S.-based services are also poised to go on the air, among them Telemundo and the USA Networks, as well as the addition of Columbia product into HBO-Ole, all in Spanish.

The Argentines have been quick to clone local versions of U.S. programming. Channels specializing in news, music, cartoons, soaps, features, sports and softcore already are on the air.

Largest of the Buenos Aires programmers is Imagen Satelital, owned by veteran TV maven Alberto Gonzalez, who announced the launch of two new channels, Infinito and Universo, at the Buenos Aires planetarium during the cable show. That brings the number of his own-programmed satellite channels up to six.

While it’ll be tough to compete with U.S. majors such as Fox’s Hollywood Channel or HBO-Ole/Cinemax or Cine Canal and the recently announced USA Network Latin feed, locals may be able to offer on-the-spot news that have more immediacy and relevance to local subscribers than those put together by Latins in Mexico, Atlanta or Miami.

Four local Argentine news services are already on the air: Telenoticias, Cablevision, La Red and TV Cronica, all competing with CNN, ECO and NBC News. An eighth news service will be added to the fray when Miami-based Telemundo starts in June.

The panorama in the second biggest cable market, Mexico, with 1.1 million subscribers, is less chaotic than Argentina. The market is dominated by the enterprising Multivision, an offshoot of Telerey, which is partnered in several of the biggest U.S. feeds, including Tele Uno, Cine Canal and USA Networks, and is programming four of its own channels, plus three pay-per-view channels.

Says Multivision’s g.m. Alberto Ennis: “This year we’ll add the Discovery Channel, Cinemax and perhaps the Bugs Bunny Channel (still in the talking stage, according to WB Mexico rep Jorge Sanchez). By the end of 1994 we expect to have 400,000 subscribers. We’re growing so fast, the competition (Televisa’s Cablevision) can’t keep up. The big draw is American films, which is what we have, thanks to Cine Canal and Tele Uno.”

Ennis said Multivision has doubled in size over the past year. In 1993, revenue was $ 25 million.

Brazil, the largest country in Latin America in population and size, is potentially also the largest market. Though that country has only 215,000 subscribers so far, expansion is proceeding at breakneck speed with the powerful Globo and Abril groups each striving to get the upper hand.

“By the end of 1994, subscribers could be up to 500,000,” said Helios Alvarez , veteran regional manager of Columbia TV. And TVA (Abril) programming topper, Roberto Rios, says that their service could be reaching 200,000 subscribers in Brazil by the end of ’94. NetBrasil’s (Globo) VP Alberto Peregueiro similarly expects to increase his present 80,000 subscribers to 200,000 by the end of the year.

Says Peregueiro: “The big growth will be in Sao Paulo and Rio, but we’re already wiring Porto Alegre and other cities.”

The scramble in Latin America is not only to get more signals on the air, but also to corner and buy up cable franchises from the smaller operators. In Argentina, the Clarin group (publishers of the biggest Buenos Aires daily and owners of ARTEAR, Channel 13), have already sucked up about a dozen systems. In Brazil, NetBrasil has acquired 49 of the 102 available franchises.

Cable growth is also occurring in Venezuela, where Omnivision (partnered in HBO-Ole and Cinemax) and competitor Cablevision reach about 200,000 subscribers.

In Chile, an incipient market of 100,000 subscribers is split between an Argentine group, Metropoli, and a Chilean outfit, Intercom, owned by the Mercurio publishing empire. A U.S. banner, United Intl. Holdings of Denver, is reported to be poised to enter the cable market in Chile as well.

With so much coin at stake, one of the problems for program suppliers has been underreporting by cable systems on the number of subscribers they have. Suppliers have answered by jacking up prices to compensate for this hanky panky.

However, as competition intensifies and cable systems include commercials in their programming more often, the true number of subscribers starts to become apparent, since local advertisers pressure systems for an accurate count of their audience.

At present, the glut of programming being offered far outstrips the demand. Cable systems must pick and choose, and prices are tumbling. Though program suppliers are loath to disclose the amounts being paid for their services, systems operators’ tongues are looser.

Most suppliers do not get more than 10 cents to 25 cents per subscriber per month for their feeds, and many offer the service free, hoping to make coin on the commercials sold. Only the heavyweights, meaning essentially those showing prime U.S. films, can command big bucks. Thus, HBO-Ole, for example, charges $ 5 .50 in Mexico and $ 6 in Argentina.

Those sitting prettiest are the purveyors of hardware and those operating the satellites. Thus far, most of the signals have been carried on Panamsat I, a private bird now jointly owned by Rene Anselmo (formerly CEO of the Spanish Intl. Network, which later became Univision) and Televisa’s Emilio Azcarraga.

Panamsat plans to put a second Latin satellite into orbit at the end of this year with a capacity for 96 channels.

As for the others, time will tell how long it’ll take them to recoup their large investments. It’s a safe bet that, for many, the big lode will turn out to be merely fool’s gold.

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