Telemundo takes on Univision

Net's restructuring strategy bears fruit

MIAMI Telemundo is getting aggressive in its uphill battle against primary U.S. Spanish-lingo rival, the ratings behemoth Univision.

Telemundo has restructured programming and production departments along the lines of parent network NBC and ramped up its slate of original shows, particularly telenovelas.

And the strategy is already bearing fruit.

In January, Telemundo had a 24% primetime share of Spanish-lingo broadcast TV auds (among adults 18-49), up from 14% a year earlier.

Since then, its share has held steady and has edged up to 26% as of mid/late April.

Under previous ownership and management, Telemundo made some notorious missteps with shows like the Spanish-lingo remakes of “Charlie’s Angels” and “Starsky & Hutch.”

Ratings and share plummeted.

After CEO and prexy James McNamara stepped in, primetime was retooled with the staple of Latin American television: telenovelas.

“We realized early on that our business model was wrong,” McNamara says. “We couldn’t justify a $3 billion acquisition by NBC based on a strategy of acquired programming.”

Rival Univision does just that, but it cherrypicks from a group of exclusive suppliers.

Chief among them is Mexico’s Televisa, the world’s leading producer of primetime sudsers, on whose output it has a solid lock until 2017. A number of Univision’s popular non-novela programs are also produced abroad.

Telemundo is betting that it can carve out a niche with novelas produced with U.S. Hispanic audiences specifically in mind.

The net’s big shift toward original productions was first unveiled at last May’s upfront and now 75% of primetime is original productions.

Spending has followed suit: Telemundo invested $30 million last year in primetime productions and will double that to $60 million this year, McNamara says.

The net’s second U.S.-based production “La Prisoniera,” a joint venture with Columbia producer RTI, bowed March 10 with a 7.3 Hispanic household rating and a 4.4 rating for adults 18-49.

Telemundo spent close to $1 million to extract Televisa hearthrob Mauricio Islas from his contract with the Mexican conglom so he could star in “Prisionera.”

Ratings were a 13% increase over Telemundo’s first U.S. based skein, “Amor Descarado.”

Meanwhile, Telemundo is prepping a romantic comedy novela, details of which will be announced at the upfront this month, says Ramon Escobar, exec VP of programming.

Since Escobar was tapped for the job last year, he’s expanded the department, mirroring much of NBC’s structure.

Escobar has a dedicated novela chief, Perla Farias. Five sudser writers are on staff, plus story producers and dialogue writers.

“The team is working a year to two years out — we’re developing for 2005,” Escobar says. “NBC/GE’s investment in us is allowing us to develop this way.”

Another exec, Mimi Belt, oversees variety, talk and reality shows. Both she and Farias report to Escobar.

With the new soap about to enter production, Telemundo will have two novelas in production simultaneously in Miami, with a third in development – in addition to coproductions in Latin America with partners like Mexico’s Argos.

Telemundo aims to produce two to three soaps in both Mexico and Miami annually, plus another one or two in Colombia where it works with RTI and Caracol.

Net has also started production on a miniseries starring Demian Bechir as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

But Telemundo hasn’t ignored the reality craze.

It will soon enter production for its fourth edition of “Protagonistas de Novela” (Soap Stars).

“I’m looking at more reality pitches for the end of next year,” Escobar allows. He’s also developing a court show and plans to revamp and upgrade gossip show “Cotorreando.”

Also in the works is a new “big, big variety show that will draw a lot of talent,” Escobar says. “This is not the variety show targeted to your grandmother” — a dig at the long running “Sabado Gigante” on Univision.

Despite the still wide ratings and share gap with Univision, McNamara maintains that Telemundo is on the right track.

“I like being the underdog – chipping away,” he says.