Telenovelas and expansion drive business

Viva Mexico! And now: the world.

Mexico’s leading TV companies are putting their international strategies into action.

Dominant Spanish-language conglom Televisa and competitor TV Azteca are steadily hawking telenovelas and other formats abroad, while Azteca also is making inroads with cablers and carving out broadcasting niches across Latin America.

Still, it has been difficult for Azteca to escape mega-net Televisa’s shadow, which has been widening exponentially.

Televisa’s long-gestating plans for worldwide expansion kicked in big time last year. It inked co-production and strategic partnership deals with a number of overseas outfits, including Jean-Luc Azoulay’s shingle JLA in France; Argentina’s leading TV producer Cris Morena Group and its sister company RGB Entertainment; and Brazil’s No. 2 conglom, TV Record. And, tapping into a potential market of a billion-plus viewers, Televisa also struck partnerships for several shows in China — including a local Chinese version of “Ugly Betty.”

Televisa’s general manager for TV content, Antonio Alonso, adds that a “Betty” remake is headed for Brazil this year in a Portuguese-language edition. And still more deals are in the works in territories including Spain, Russia, India, South Korea and Japan.

“We will be exploring opportunities in all these markets, looking for the right partners and the right products,” he adds. “We are not in a hurry; rather, we are looking for long-term relationships.”

Azteca, which has a 20%-30% audience in Mexico, also touts a slow-and-steady international-growth plan. Company’s international sales veep, Marcel Vinay Sr., says Azteca is implementing a number of strategies to achieve this goal, while continuing to push telenovela sales.

For both of these Mexican TV giants, telenovelas are the bread-and-butter biz.

“It’s a working model that brings in money,” Vinay says. Production is highly focused in this area, and the net’s latest soaps, “Eternamente tuya” (Eternally Yours) and “Vuelven a creer” (Believe Again), launched with much fanfare locally. A music tie-in saw 80,000 viewers download the “Eternamente” theme song in the first 18 days of the telenovela’s launch.

Beyond telenovela sales, however, Azteca is taking advantage of a common-language regional market — including large Spanish-speaking populations in Canada and the United States — by rolling out new cable channels. Azteca Internacional recently expanded to Argentina and Chile and is now available in 16 countries, including Canada and Spain. Soap-focused Azteca Novelas has the same coverage and reaches nearly 3 million subscribers, Vinay says.

In the United States, Azteca has two channels: Azteca Mexico, which closely mirrors the net’s Mexican channel Azteca 13, with national news and gossip on Mexican celebs; and Azteca America, which is aimed at Spanish speakers who may be less interested in Mexican content.

Vinay says that Azteca America is in active talks with a number of U.S. companies about Spanish-language co-production opportunities. Plus, Azteca would like to move beyond telenovelas into glossy dramatic productions that can travel.

U.S. fare such as “The Sopranos” and “Desperate Housewives” has sparked a trend for this type of drama production. Last year, Televisa collaborated with veteran showrunner Pedro Torres and Mediamates on the star-studded “Mujeres asesinas” (Killer Women) as well as inhouse Ana Claudia Talancon hit “Terminales” (Terminals), about terminally ill patients and their new way of life.

Shows such as “Terminales” are “totally exportable,” says Televisa’s European director of sales, Claudia Sahab. “We think it’s an original product that’s very apt for the European market.” She adds that countries such as Portugal and Russia are interested in co-producing with Televisa.

Televisa’s focus remains very much on content, stresses Alonso. “It is not (our) intention to enter into new channels but rather focus on exploiting successful formats,” he says.

Still, Alonso added that Televisa’s international strategy does include “strengthening our cable TV portfolio.” Citing one example, Alonso says Televisa is working on developing a sports channel and a channel in Portuguese for the Brazilian market.

Azteca, meanwhile, is more actively investing in broadcasters overseas. It took a 70% stake in Guatemala’s terrestrial net Latitud TV, tapping into an ad market valued at $100 million. Azteca parent company Grupo Salinas already has a presence in Guatemala through its Elektra retail stores and Banco Azteca banks, which could yield cross-marketing opportunities. Vinay says this same model could be tapped to expand to broadcasting markets in El Salvador, Peru, Argentina and Brazil.

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