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Global aspirations

As personality of the year, Cisneros sees his empire expand

There others see a rock, he sees a diamond in the rough.

That at least is how outsiders describe the talent that Gustavo Cisneros has shown in putting together one of the top media congloms in the world. It’s a company that started out with its roots deeply planted in Venezuela but is now a multifaceted operation with tendrils throughout the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Though less well-known outside the Spanish-language world — which is 550 million speakers worldwide — Mipcom might be the venue where that wider audience first sits up and takes notice.

Cisneros, whose Caracas-based Cisneros Group of Cos. boasts ownership of top-rated Venezuelan network Venevision and a minority stake in Univision, the powerhouse Hispanic web in the U.S., is turning his attention increasingly to the global arena.

While CGC has operated businesses in Iberia, including holding stakes in satellite platform Via Digital and department stores in Spain, its chief focus has been on broadcast ventures in the Americas, from Canada to Chile.

The 60-year-old Cisneros, a savvy operator one Spanish observer described as “principled but pragmatic,” will be honored Oct. 19 with the personality of the year award at Mipcom. The honor will be bestowed upon him by Reed Midem, the organizers of the TV trade show event, in recognition of his contributions to the global entertainment biz.

He joins a number of illustrious prior recipients of the Mipcom laurel, including Ted Turner, Sumner Redstone and his fellow South American Roberto Marinho, the head of Brazil’s TV Globo empire.

Like Marinho, Cisneros’ imprint is most noticeable in Europe and Asia via the licensing of telenovelas, which in 20 years have become highly prized properties on many a fledgling and some established networks across those continents.

“He’s been a TV guy since he was born,” is how one of his top lieutenants, Antonieta De Lopez, describes her boss’s talents. Other media observers point to his prodigious memory and equally thick Rolodex, as well as his negotiating skills.

“Most importantly,” de Lopez adds, “Gustavo is a risk-taker who has a good sense of where a particular business — in our case, broadcasting — is headed.”

Gustavo and younger brother Ricardo, who concentrates more on finances while Gustavo focuses on long-term plans and corporate strategy, have built up their operation after inheriting their father’s then considerably smaller media business when they were in their late 20s.

As biographer Pablo Bachelet put it, “Cisneros has taken part in some of the boldest, most spectacular deals in Latin America, Spain, Portugal and the U.S. Always in companies that produce those things that accompany us in our daily living — soap operas, golf balls, the Internet, supermarkets and soft drinks.”

Cisneros was, for example, at the table when pay TV was in its infancy, theorizing early on that satellite-delivered TV could revolutionize viewing in South America — and that one strong platform for the region was the way to go.

As it turned out, CGC ended up partnering with Hughes Electronics while his counterparts in Mexico (Emilio Azcarraga Milmo) and in Brazil (Marinho) cast their lots with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky platform. Both satcasters faced management, technical and financial hurdles and, two years ago, coalesced under the Murdoch brand.

Similarly, Cisneros was one of the first entrepreneurs in Latin America to recognize the potential of the Web for his continent and its development.

In 1998, CGC linked with America Online to form a Latin America Web portal, and in just three years some 15 million subscribers had embraced the Web South of the Border. (Unfortunately the dot-com debacle, economic depression in several Latin American countries and the financial stresses of the Time Warner-AOL merger took their toll on the joint venture. His friendships with Steve Case, Robert Pittman and Richard Parsons survived the dissolution.)

De Lopez, VP of corporate affairs for the company, was hired by Cisneros six years ago after a decade as the top female exec in the Venezuelan oil industry.

CGC, like Bertelsmann a privately held conglom, does not easily show its cards when it comes to decisions about acquisitions or partnerships.

Asked if the company had any specific interest in media investments beyond the Ibero American market, Cisneros danced intriguingly around the subject without ever committing himself.

“Today our production and distribution of telenovelas has taken us to more than 100 countries. Our targeting of the U.S.-Hispanic market now leverages all the resources of CGC. We are even exploring possibilities in China. At the Cisneros Group we have always been willing to explore new opportunities, wherever they may be,” he says.

Adds Lopez: “Our top execs have been going to China for a couple of years, looking to see what production, distribution and other opportunities for us there are. I can tell you it’s high on the agenda.”

On the U.S. front, Cisneros early on realized the growth potential of the Hispanic population and ad market. He teamed with Televisa’s Azcarraga Milmo and Italian-American investor Jerry Perenchio in the early ’90s to take over Univision from then owner Hallmark. They quickly turned it into a powerhouse.

By 1996, a Merrill Lynch analyst observed, “Nobody approaches the control of 80% of the market that Univision enjoys — not even in the English-speaking market.”

Just recently, Univision hit another milestone, becoming the highest-rated station in New York, beating out all the local English-language competitors.

Still, Cisneros’ diplomatic skills have to stay sharp in this oddly constructed triangle of owners. Relations between Televisa and the Perenchio camp in Univision have been frayed of late, with a suit-countersuit filed. In the latest tiff, which involves rights paid for programming and decision-making protocol, Cisneros is apparently playing the role of arbitrator, another skill that he brings to the table.

Perhaps nowhere are such talents more needed, however, than at home in Venezuela, where the company has to navigate the choppy waters churned up by the Hugo Chavez regime.

A law for social responsibility in broadcasting, passed two years ago seemingly to protect children, is viewed by many as a way for the government to control what goes out over the air.

Like his father, Cisneros is a proponent of democratic values and, also like his father, a pragmatist who believes in negotiating to effect change.

By this light, to lose the Venevision broadcast license would be paramount to losing the ability to make a difference, as well as a disaster for those who make their living working for it.

That approach is in keeping with what Cisneros told the Ibero-American Forum two years ago: “These threats and dangers (of demagogic and radical messages) demand of democratic leaders, entrepreneurs and all of us who love freedom a responsible concerted course of action to increase employment, equality of opportunities and access to healthier and more satisfying lives for the great majorities on the continent.”

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