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Univision’s CEO Has Bold Plans to Reinvigorate the Spanish-Language Giant

One of the first things Vincent Sadusky did after taking the reins of Univision Communications as CEO last June was to shift the company’s headquarters from New York to Miami.

Under previous CEO Randy Falco, the locus of power at the company had been in New York. But Sadusky felt it was important to be close to what he sees as Univision’s beating heart — the expansive production and broadcast facility in Doral, Fla. (just outside Miami), home of Univision’s national newscasts and much of its lifestyle programming.

“We’ve got two massive facilities doing live programming and news. This is where the operating center is. This is where we’re closer to the action of what we actually do for a living,” Sadusky told Variety.

The Doral facility has been humming with increased production activity for Univision’s TV and radio outlets. It’s also seen a fair amount of comings and goings as Sadusky’s regime has brought on about 200 new employees at all levels of the organization in the past 90 days. The swirl of activity under the new leader reinforces that Univision has come to a crossroads and is likely to change hands in the coming years.

Sadusky’s focus is on beefing up the operations and improving the company’s profitability. Univision had intended to field an initial public offering to allow for an exit strategy for some of the financial investors who have owned the company since 2006, including Haim Saban’s Saban Capital Group, Providence Equity, and TPG. But the company’s weak performance and turbulence in the media marketplace in general made an IPO untenable.

Sadusky said his focus is not dressing up the assets for a sale but rather building on the assets it has to make for a stronger company overall.

“The conversation I had with (Univision’s owners) was that this company should be a much stronger company in terms of its operations. If you want somebody to ready the company for a sale, I’m not interested. If you want somebody to come in with a strategy, then I’m all in,” Sadusky said. “That approach will make your asset more valuable than having a CEO focused on selling the company.”

The constant speculation about the IPO or M&A activity was distracting for employees, Sadusky added.

“The financial sponsors that have owned us for more than a decade — they are definitely desirous of reducing their stake or selling out in the future,” Sadusky said. “But right now I’m focused on making Univision the strongest it can possibly be. Our folks understand that.”

Saban, who is chairman of Univision, praised Sadusky for bringing “a renewed sense of purpose” in a short time.

“The company is energized by his straight-forward management style and clear go-forward strategy, which has returned Univision to its core business and mission, resulting in striking ratings growth across its networks,” Saban told Variety. “We look forward to Univision’s continued momentum and success under Vince’s skilled and thoughtful leadership.”

On Monday, Univision unveiled a refurbished set for its national morning show “Despierta America.” The 7-11 a.m. broadcast has been remodeled to mix how-to and informational segments into the stream of breaking news coverage. The emphasis is on providing “news you can use” tips designed for what Univision calls “the Hispanic community.” The show has also added a regular consumer watchdog advocacy segment, a showcase for viral videos and a feel-good segment highlighting “Hispanics who are making a difference.”

On Sadusky’s watch, Univision is investing big in local and national news operations and looking for more ways to get live programming on its air. The strategy is in keeping with Sadusky’s long resume as a manager of local broadcast TV stations, notably for LIN Television and Media General. He also spent 10 years working for Telemundo, Univision’s Spanish-language rival, starting in 1994. Back then, Univision was the undisputed leader in U.S. Spanish-language TV with a dominance of its market that was unrivaled by any other network. In recent years, however, the company’s grip has loosened as Telemundo made inroads with shows aimed at U.S.-born Hispanics that made some of Univision’s programs imported from Mexico’s Televisa seem fusty.

During his time at Telemundo, where his roles included serving as treasurer and chief financial officer, Univision “was like the New England Patriots of broadcast,” he said. “Univision was a really strong brand, and people who worked there felt a sense of pride about the mission of serving the Spanish-language audience.”

Sadusky set out to reinvigorate that sense of purpose, in part by emphasizing Univision’s national reach and local connection with viewers.

“We’ve added more local reporters and we’re looking for more live opportunities all of the time,” Sadusky said. “We’re adding newscasts and morning shows in many of local markets and we’ve made pretty significant investment in digital on the local side. Univision had done a lot nationally but they were missing out on that community connection. People want to know the weather and the traffic and the local school closings in their markets.”

Sadusky’s drive to enhance the standing of Univision on the local level is influenced by the fact that Univision has nearly 60 O&Os, which gives the network direct control of the vast majority of its distribution. “That’s just a great competitive advantage for us,” he said.

The other strategic shift for Univision that has accelerated under Sadusky is the company’s openness to buying programming from outside producers. For decades, Univision was largely a closed shop with programs coming from its longtime partner Televisa or through internal production operations. Now, the doors are open and Univision is open to pursuing development in a traditional way, outside the bounds of telenovelas.

“You have to commit to doing pilots and series,” Sadusky said. “You don’t really know where you’re next hit is going to come from. You have to have a lot of irons in the fire to even have a shot at it. I’m not sure that was the case in the past for Univision but it is now.”

Among the other big items on Sadusky’s to-do list is reaching a new carriage agreement with Dish Network. Unvision stations have been dark on Dish since June 30, taking a toll on the company’s affiliate revenue base. Conversations are “ongoing,” Sadusky said.

Another about-face for Univision in the past year is the decision to sell the Gizmodo Group of digital content firms that were acquired during the past five years under the previous regime in a bid to reach multicultural millennials. “It’s kind of a round peg in a square hole for us,” Sadusky said of the assets that include the Onion, Deadspin, the A.V. Club, the Root, and Jezebel. He expects the Gizmodo sale process to be well along by the second quarter.

As Sadusky settles into his new role — his glass-walled office is perched just above the newsroom floor in Doral — he believes that keeping a tight focus on Univision’s “mission and purpose” is the best guiding principal at a time of great change in media.

“This company is full of living examples of American success stories — of families that came here and built a great life,” Sadusky said. “There’s a commitment to the audience that permeates the company. There is a real sense of shared values and a mission here that I think is unique to the entertainment business.”

(Pictured: Univision CEO Vince Sadusky, center, unveiling the “Despierta America” set at a March 1 town hall for Univision employees) 

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