Univision bets big on news

Spanish-lingo giant preps for bow of 24/7 news channel

While U.S. auds have been gradually slipping away from news and current affairs shows, Univision’s U.S. Spanish-speaking viewers are embracing the format.

Over the last 10 years, Univision’s primetime news magazine “Aqui y ahora” (Here and Now), co-hosted by Maria Elena Salinas and Teresa Rodriguez, has upped its audience, while its English-language counterparts — ABC’s “20/20,” CBS’ “60 Minutes” and NBC’s “Dateline” — have lost nearly 50% of their viewers.

Now the Spanish-language TV giant intends to feed the demand for such shows even further, enlisting Univision News prexy Isaac Lee to increase the scope of its inhouse coverage.

The moves dovetail with the company’s plan to launch cable news channel Univision 24/7 in fall 2012, in time for the U.S. presidential elections.

The network is making a big push into news, hiring high-profile heavy-hitters with a slew of awards.

Journos Karl Penhaul and Carlos Villalon have been recruited as special foreign correspondents in conflict zones around the world.

British-born Penhaul hails from CNN and has been based in Latin America since 1995. He has won a clutch of awards for his work, including the 2010 Cine Golden Eagle for “La bestia,” his docu charting illegal immigration from Central America to the U.S.

He was also part of a CNN team that won the 2006 Peabody award for is reporting of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, as well as the team that won the 2007 Edward R. Murrow award for coverage of the Lebanon war.

Chilean photojournalist Villalon, who has worked for Redux Pictures and Getty Images, won second place in the 2010 World Press Photo contest’s general news category for his work on cocaine gangs in Colombia.

Mexican-born Maria Antonieta Collins — a TV journalist, radio personality, columnist, author and winner of two Emmys and an Edgar Murrow award — is joining as a senior special correspondent.

Univision also has launched documentary and investigative units and expanded local newscasts in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Raleigh.

Univision’s documentary unit, headed by scribe-producer Juan Rendon, plans to produce three docus a year.

The first out the gate is “Infiltrados” (Infiltrated), set to air in September. It centers on intelligence agents whose infiltration of Colombian left-wing guerrilla org FARC led to the capture of its leaders.

Lee, who joined Univision in January, exec-produced NatGeo’s 2008 docu “FARC Hostage Rescue,” which Rendon penned.

Another docu in the works explores the growing influence of Iran across Latin America, and will be a collaboration between the investigative and documentary units, says Lee. Gerardo Reyes, a Pulitzer prize-winning journo previously at the Miami Herald, heads the investigative unit.

Univision 24/7 will most likely carry the net’s weekly mainstays. These are led by public affairs program “Al punto” (To the Point), which delivers an average 900,000 viewers on Sunday mornings and is anchored by Univision’s most influential newscaster, Jorge Ramos; and “Primer impacto” (First Impact), co-anchored by Peru-born, six-time Emmy-winning journo Pamela Silva Conde and Puerto Rican journo Barbara Bermudo.

“Primer impacto” is the highest-rated Spanish-language daily afternoon news program in the U.S., outperforming syndicated English-language counterparts “Inside Edition,” “Extra” and “Insider” in the 18-34 demo.

While reluctant to reveal more details about Univision 24/7, Lee stresses that the new hires and other efforts to produce more in-depth news coverage aim to provide U.S. Hispanic auds with compelling news reports.

“All this reaffirms Univision’s commitment to invest in its inhouse news operations and expand its news franchise,” says Lee.

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