Imagen All The Programming

Alberto Gonzalez, founder-president of programming powerhouse Imagen Satelital, is one of the few business leaders not complaining about the Argentine recession.

The 63-year-old Gonzalez is having a good year: He recently moved into his new $5 million production facility and launched two of his cable channels on a pan-regional basis, and now is preparing to enter the hot arena of direct-to-home TV.

Gonzalez, who began his career in TV in 1952, is a charismatic and well-liked operator. He also moves quickly: In just five years he has built a successful programming mini-empire, employing 230 staffers, producing six 24-hour cable signals and distributing nine more on behalf of programmers from Argentina, Chile, Peru and Mexico.

Two of Imagen’s own webs, docu channel Infinito and adult film web Venus, are now distributed throughout Latin America. By March, Gonzalez hopes to launch a new signal, Chacra, with agricultural programming. An eighth channel, of undisclosed content but with pan-regional reach, is in the cards for late 1996.

Gonzalez has proven he’s interested in quality as well as quantity. Infinito, for example, has a wider subscriber base in Argentina than the Discovery Channel. October cable ratings from IPSA-Nielsen placed both of Imagen’s movie channels, I- Sat and Space, in the Buenos Aires top 10 – ahead of TNT, Fox and Cinemax.

Many of the independent channels Imagen handles are high-profile. These include Argentina’s highest-rated news channel, Cronica TV, and the country’s top-rated music channel, MuchMusic. Imagen also handles channels for Mexican TV giant Televisa: ECO, El Canal de las Estrellas, Telenovelas and TeleHit (see box).

Imagen generates monthly revenue of $3 million in programming fees. With some of the highest ad rates in cable – $70 per second – the company also makes a monthly average of $600,000 in advertising sales.

Gonzalez’s attention now is focused on his new baby, a DTH service for the Southern Cone – Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and southern Brazil – to be launched in March. This could put him up against bigger services: DirecTV Latin America from Hughes Communications, Galavision DTH from Televisa and Panamsat, and a third offering from News Corp. and Brazil’s Globo.

Gonzalez admits he may be drawn into the major league: “We’re negotiating with Televisa, which has offered us a Southern Cone partnership in which we handle distribution. But Hughes is another potential partner – they want to meet again with us during the Jornadas, perhaps to reach (a similar) type of agreement.”

Conventional wisdom in the industry holds that only two (or perhaps three) Latino DTH players will survive in the long run, partly because overheads are so high and because access to cheap credit is essential for marketing the required $700-plus decoder boxes to subscribers.

If he continues to go it alone, Gonzalez projects a startup of $20 million, and Germany’s Deutsche Bank already has offered financing.

“The idea is to offer no more than 20 to 24 channels of excellent quality, ” Gonzalez says. Imagen already has exclusive rights to most of the signals it distributes (though not the Televisa channels), and that offering will be complemented by such nonexclusive fare as HBO Ole.

Charging a $25 to $30 fee, including lease of the decoder box, Gonzalez expects he can obtain some 80,000 Southern Cone subscribers in the first year of operations and amortize his initial investment within six months.

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