Univision Televisa Partnership
Cheyne Gateley for Variety

Last week, Univision and its major content partner, Televisa, announced a deepening of their relationship, with Isaac Lee becoming chief content officer for both companies. Televisa is in a unique position to help Univision out of some of its troubles, but it’s also arguably the source of some of them. This new move could easily backfire.

Univision owns the fifth-largest broadcast network in the U.S. and several of the most popular Spanish-language cable networks, but ad revenue and broadcast ratings — competitor Telemundo recently overtook Univision in ratings — are flagging. Univision also continues to labor under the massive debt it was saddled with as a result of the 2007 transaction that took it private. As a result, the company has generated a meaningful net profit in only one of the last five years.

One possible solution to this quandary would be an IPO, as has long been expected, or a big investment by an outside party. Televisa, which paid down some of Univision’s debt last year in return for a larger stake and now owns assets that could be converted into a 38% share, recently obtained FCC permission to raise its share to as much as 49%. In theory, Televisa could be something of a savior for Univision.

sources: Univision filings, Jackdaw Research Analysis

But the content side of the relationship has begun to show cracks. The telenovelas that have provided the bulk of Univision’s primetime content have begun to feel stale and less relevant to the network’s U.S. audience, and that’s a big part of the reason for the ratings decline.

Until recently, Univision’s financial performance showed little sign of these brewing problems. But over the last two quarters, its TV ad-revenue growth on a comparable basis suddenly turned negative; the third quarter of 2016 saw a 7% decline.

What Univision really needs is new funding to invest in original content better suited to its U.S. audience. But investment from Televisa would likely tie its hands even more, rather than freeing it to make the dramatic changes needed to turn its performance around.

sources: Univision filings, Jackdaw Research Analysis

The IPO route seems like a better bet in terms of Univision’s long-term fortunes, but with ratings turning south and the reality of the broader secular challenges facing the TV market, the timing for an IPO is far from ideal — which is why the company has shelved those plans for the time being.

Univision CEO Randy Falco has been playing down reports of tension with Televisa, and the new content relationship seems to be an attempt to bridge the gap. But in the long term, Univision may well regret getting even closer to Televisa rather than looking elsewhere for salvation.

Jan Dawson is the founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, an advisory firm for the consumer technology market.

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