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Galan sees Latin gold ahead

HOLLYWOOD — Entertainment Weekly calls Cuban-American TV personality Nely Galan “one of the most powerful young executives in Hollywood.”

Galan’s rise to that status has been nothing short of meteoric, and with an assist from market forces that are opening doors to a new generation of Latin American talent.

Since hosting her first talk show for PBS when she was 18, she has gone on to a number of high profile assignments, including stints on E! Channel’s “Gossip,” HBO’s Latin division, Tropix, Ole, ESPN Intl. and Fox Latin America.

Galan is benefiting from the phenomenon of the ’90s global media revolution, with international cable generating stratospheric growth, especially in Latin America, an underserved region with increasing political stability and a burgeoning middle class. As she points out, “the European market is maxed out. Everybody is focused on Latin America and Asia.”

Pioneered by Turner Broadcasting, HBO Ole and ESPN Intl., dozens of new Latin American cable systems have sprung up over the past year, including NBC Noticias , Fox Latin America and MTV Latino.

The total number of cable channels in Latin America rose from a handful a few years ago to 50 last summer; by this coming summer, that number is expected incredibly to reach 100. Galan foresees that “with so many companies entering Latin America at the same time, it will be easy to see who drops out and to analyze why.”

This explosive growth, unprecedented in the history of television, has created a torrid, boom-town atmosphere.

Of this relatively unexploited Hispanic TV market of half a billion people, (including Portuguese-speaking Brazil), Galan warns: “We are suddenly dealing with this pan-Continental market. There are lots of buyers, but it’s not so easy. People think it’s a gold rush, but each Latin nation has its own set of rules, it’s own culture.”

Currently, there are an estimated 5.7 million subscribers in Latin America, so the scale of cable’s reach is still in its infancy. The largest markets are Argentina, with 3 million subscribers, and Mexico, with 1.5 million. Out of these new markets are a number of TV success stories that are surprises sometimes even to their backers.

For three years, ESPN had already been available in English in Latin America; the fact that even in English they were pirated evinced strong demand for the global sports channel. But in order to expand beyond affluent households where English was a second language, ESPN had to make the difficult leap into broadcasting American sports in Spanish to Latin auds. “These American sports made no sense to Latin Americans; it’s not like showing movies,” says Galan. “We started with soccer and horse racing, then put on the NFL, but with a twist at first: instead of play-by-play, we had people explaining American football.”

One U.S. sport to catch on unexpectedly in South America has been ice hockey. Galan remembers tortuous discussions with Latin affils laboring to come up with a Spanish term for hockey puck. Finally, they just stuck with puck.

Former ESPN programmer Bernard Stuart credits Galan with more than just cultural bridge-building. “Nely encouraged us to do our operations from our U.S. studios (in Bristol, Conn.). That has a big payoff, because you’re able to maintain first-class quality control.”

Galan asserts that “a fundamental mistake many companies have made in co-productions with Latin America has been to give them the production. First of all, production values there are different; second, if you give up quality control, your product’s all over the place. Even if it’s harder in start-up, because you lack a talent pool, it’s important for the company to build it.”

In 1993, Fox exec Concepcion Lara teamed with Galan for the launch of Fox Latin America. “Fox was the culmination of all the others,” says Galan, “because two Latinas, Concepcion and I, got to sit down and figure what to do with all this library product.”

Lara came up with the concept of “luxury basic,” a cable product that’s a luxury, yet affordable, “like the GAP stores,” adds Galan. For their graphics, they brought their vision of the channel to Emmy-award winning graphics agency Pittard, Fitzgerald and Sullivan. Inspired by the hit Mexican film “Like Water for Chocolate,” the agency created a gorgeous, sensual look, replete with roses and shimmering veils — revolutionary for TV graphics.

Lara and Galan did a detailed study to analyze lifestyles and preferences in each country. “We did focus groups,” says Galan. “We wanted to find out what the hot buttons in Latin America were. We discovered that love comes first, family second and career third. So we designed a very passionate, sexy, rich-looking channel. Ironically, Fox Latin America has been criticized in the industry, according to Galan, for looking “too good,” making the market standard higher for everybody else. It’s hard to argue with the results of Lara and Galan’s innovative approach. “Since our August, 1993 launch,” says Lara, “we have hit our first-year projection in six months.”

Fox is the only cable channel in Latin America to originate in Los Angeles, and tap into the creativity and support services of Hollywood. “We wanted to be the Hollywood channel of Latin America, so we’re called ‘El Canal de Hollywood,” says Lara. Emblematic of Fox’s sensuous, Hollywood approach is the overwhelming response to a recent Marilyn Monroe fest. Promos have stars like Harrison Ford smiling, saying “Buenos Dias, Latinoamerica!”

Galan’s latest post is as the host of E! channel’s “Gossip,” a job she took as a last-minute replacement for Joan Rivers. “It looked like a gold mine for Latin America, Galan says. “If you’re in Argentina, you can’t get Hollywood gossip.” True to character, Galan has transformed a straightforward hosting gig into a further opportunity to make inroads into Latin America. “I did a deal between Tropix and E! where we shoot back-to-back English and Spanish wrap-arounds,” says Galan. They also substitute some of the U.S. reports with Latin gossip. For Galan, “it’s the perfect example of tailoring American programming to Latin audiences.”

In the future, Galan envisions a world where programming flows both north and south successfully. “In four years,” she says, “whoever can make product geared to go either way is going to be sitting on a gold mine.”

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