Virgin territory for U.S. programmers until 1989, the Latin American cable landscape is still in many ways uncharted. Few people know their way around it like Venezuela’s Jose Manuel Pagani.

Executive VP and general manager of HBO Ole, which beams Warner, Sony and indie product to all points south of Tijuana, Pagani helped pioneer U.S. satellite entry into Latin America – a market now said to number more than 12 million homes.

In 1991, the one-time Radio Caracas DJ oversaw the birth of HBO’s Latina sister – a joint venture between U.S. and Venezuelan players. And now Pagani is managing the distribution of two new channels announced at NATPE: the Warner Channel and Sony Entertainment Television, due to launch in first part of ’95.

Both newcomers are joint projects with HBO Ole Partners (the movie channel’s owners), which will handle distribution. Thus HBO Ole Partners seals its transition from a single-channel entity to a multiple programmer.

“I want to see us becoming the most important programming supplier to cable and satellite in Latin America, which is why we’re aiming to have at least six or seven channels to offer,” Pagani told Variety recently.

The new launches beg the question: how many channels can the region support? When HBO Ole lifted off 3 1/2 years ago, only four U.S. networks had already staked a claim. Now at least 20 U.S. channels compete for attention. Add signals originated in Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere, and the total tops 100.

Yet while many still operate in the red, HBO Ole reached break-even within a year of launch. And few rivals, if any, match HBO Ole’s support network of more than 220 staff in Miami, Caracas, Mexico City, Guatemala City and Buenos Aires. HBO Brazil is separately owned and, again, Pagani supervised its launch.

Support includes fine-tuning the product to each culture.

“We all speak the same language, but winter in Mexico is summer in Argentina, so the school holidays are different,” says Pagani. “People don’t listen to the same music, the kids play with different toys.”

The diversified approach to marketing pays off, according to a new survey of nearly 6,000 Latin American consumers. Conducted by New York-based Audits & Surveys, the study gives HBO Ole top viewer rating – despite the fact that, in most territories, HBO Ole is a premium channel. Sister channel Cinemax ranks fourth among the 26 surveyed.

Pagani’s rather tight-lipped about his rivals, but he will say that too often channels “try to transfer the experience of the U.S. to the Latin American market – they’re not doing the proper research.”

Spade work may be the secret of his success. While many programmers expressed “pleasant surprise” at Audits & Surveys’ various findings, Pagani sounded unimpressed: “We already did our own internal research and more or less found the same things,” he said.

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