Latin executives vault into U.S.

RCTV heir works both sides of equator

There’s nothing so valuable in the global media marketplace these days as a stocked library of television and film content ripe for remakes, format sales and digital licensing deals.

Jorge Granier, scion of the Venezuelan clan that built Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) into one of Latin America’s oldest and largest production-distribution operations, sees a wealth of opportunities on both sides of the equator for his family’s diverse holdings. As managing director of RCTV Intl., Granier is leading the charge to develop re-dos in the U.S. and other markets, of programs from the company’s vast library.

Working out of Miami, Granier, who is also a filmmaker and producer, has in recent months been bouncing among Los Angeles, New York, Caracas and Cannes as he makes the rounds of domestic talent agencies, networks and producers, with a handful of properties that he sees as being particularly attractive to U.S. buyers. He’s brought eight formats Stateside, such as telenovelas “My Cousin Ciela,” “Mi Gorda Bella,” “Juana La Virgen” and “Mis 3 Hermanas”; and set up several projects with a range of partners; at every meeting, bizzers are surprised to learn that RCTV boasts a vault of more than 300 shows and 35,000 hours of content.

There was a learning curve for Granier, too.

“It’s more familial in the Latin world,” he says. “We do business a little differently there, and it goes back generations with people learning and growing through companies that are all interrelated. Coming to L.A., it’s more professional — you’re playing in the big leagues.”

But even as RCTV turns its focus to new markets, Granier’s family is hoping to see the business climate at home improve dramatically in the near future, depending on the outcome of next month’s presidential election. If longtime prexy Hugo Chavez is defeated — not as inconceivable an outcome as in recent years — Granier’s family is likely to regain control of RCTV broadcast TV assets that were seized in 2007 by the Chavez regime. The government claimed RCTV violated broadcast laws and sought to incite a rebellion with its support of a coup attempt a few years earlier.

The takeover of RCTV stunned Venezuelans, who considered the station, founded in 1953, to be a national fixture.

Overnight, RCTV’s popular commercial station went from a 46% share of the Venezuelan broadcast TV audience to a state-run pro-Chavez organ that saw its audience evaporate to a fraction of what it once was.

“After they shut us down, all of RCTV’s transmission equipment, antennas, everything was taken by the government,” Granier says. “They basically said we were ‘lending’ it to the government in order for them to put their broadcast channel on the air. But they didn’t need the (spectrum) space RCTV had. They didn’t need our equipment, but they took it anyway, and in the past five years that the government has been using it, the maintenance has not been the same. In fact, they lost some of the coverage around Venezuela because of lack of equipment maintenance and care.”

Russ Dallen, managing partner of Caracas Capital Markets and editor-in-chief of the Latin American Herald Tribune, calls the RCTV case a prime example of the media’s plight in Venezuela.

“The government controls virtually all media,” Dallen says. “State-run Canal 8 dominates the airwaves, and is basically a 24-hour government propaganda tool.”

The government seizure forced RCTV to put its emphasis on production, particularly targeting media companies outside Venezuela. For the U.S. Spanish-lingo market, RCTV had been under an output deal with Univision. But when that expired in 2010, Granier could see that the content market was changing dramatically, and that RCTV would be better off operating as a free agent, unencumbered by exclusive commitments to any one outlet.

“We produce for Disney, Turner and other companies,” he says. “We have offices in Miami that sells the programs that we created in our almost 60-year history. They’ve been sold in Russia, the Philippines, Europe and the Middle East.”

Granier says that after 2010, the company saw growing opportunities in the market. “It was just exploding,” he says, “so we started looking at the RCTV library. We looked at how these shows in the library perform around the world, and chose a handful of them to show to American producers. We did this not only with the RCTV library, but with (non-RCTV) shows around Latin America as well.”

This year, Granier hand-picked eight formats to shop to U.S. buyers. His meetings have taught him that intellectual property is elastic when being adapted to local tastes. One format that was originally produced as a drama morphed into a sitcom pitch for U.S. buyers.

Among the pacts RCTV has set:

• A deal with the CBS-based Ole banner run by producers Bryan and Sean Furst and helmer Richard Shepard to develop “Designs of Love,” a sitcom involving a widower who inherits his wife’s lingerie business.

• A format dubbed “Valentina” that Granier believes will have legs Stateside after proving successful in Mexico, Malaysia and India over the past several years. “It’s ‘Cinderella’ meets ‘Ugly Betty’ with a ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ twist,” he adds. “The three versions of ‘Valentina’ in those other countries have done very well.”

• “Finn,” a procedural drama centering on a politician with serial-killer tendencies who solves crime in Washington, D.C., is gaining traction with U.S. nets.

RCTV Intl. also is eyeing digital development possibilities for a range of shows.

Granier brings a producer’s eye to RCTV’s expansion effort. He’s worked as a producer and helmer for the family biz as well as non-affiliated companies since he was a teen. Most recently, he helmed and produced a feature documentary on Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, “Pablo of Medellin,” which became Colombia’s highest-grossing doc to date and was recently acquired by Telemundo for broadcast in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

As Venezuela’s Oct. 7 election draws near, Granier and his family are optimistic that change is on the horizon for RCTV and the company at large, after 13 years of Chavez rule. The opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, has made restoring RCTV one of his primary campaign slogans. But Granier has no illusions that a regime change would automatically restore RCTV’s domestic biz to its pre-2007 state.

“If RCTV got its broadcast license back, it would become a long and hard job of rebuilding the company,” he says. “I think the TV industry in general in Venezuela has suffered. People are now watching more TV (shows that are) not made in the country, so production has decreased. There are less employers.

“It would be a tough job to rebuild the company, but it would be great for all of us. It’s something we are looking forward to.” The takeaway:

Former execs behind Venezuela’s RCTV are looking for remake pacts and format sales for its extensive library as they aim to rebound from government takeover.