Univision of the future

On a Monday morning in Miami, Florida, inflatable lips and balloon hearts still hang in an empty Univision television studio from the filming of Sábado Gigante two days earlier. A weekly variety show, now 50 years old, Sábado Gigante has become America’s longest-running TV programme. Though most Americans have never watched the show, they probably know it as shorthand for Spanish-language TV – gaudy, raucous and glamorous in the style of the 6ft tall woman in high stilettos and tiger-print leggings stalking past the studio door on her way to an appearance on Univision’s morning magazine show.

For five decades, Sábado Gigante has been the highlight of a Univision schedule otherwise dominated by telenovelas, melodramas that endure in the Spanish-speaking world even as soap operas disappear from English-language networks. Hispanic media in the United States are changing, however. After decades of importing novelas (mostly from Televisa, the Mexican broadcaster with a stake in Univision), Univision’s Miami studios are becoming a Hispanic Hollywood, producing dramas to suit the changing sensibilities of viewers whose families moved north of the border two or three generations ago.

The expansion of America’s Hispanic community – which between 2000 and 2010 grew 43 per cent to 50m and is forecast to almost double from 16 per cent to 29 per cent of the population by 2050 – has transformed Spanish-language TV. In the first quarter of 2013, Univision was America’s fourth largest broadcaster in prime time for 18-34-year-olds, behind ABC, CBS and Fox but beating NBC.

US Latinos’ rising spending power, which researcher Nielsen predicts will grow from $1tn in 2010 to $1.5tn in 2015, has caught advertisers’ attention. Spending by brands on Hispanic media has outpaced the wider ad market for a decade and now stands at $7bn. That is funding expansion at Univision and smaller rivals including Telemundo, as well as attracting newcomers such as MundoFox, a cable network launched last August by Rupert Murdoch.

The next stage in this market’s transformation is taking shape in the least glossy corner of Univision’s newsroom, where 14 people sit, focused on their screens. Most are recent journalism graduates building a full news website. The team members, who stand out for the fact they are working not in Spanish but in English, are the digital vanguard of Fusion, an English-language TV news and lifestyle network Univision plans to launch in late summer in a multimillion dollar joint venture with ABC, the Disney-owned broadcaster. About 300 recruits are due to join them in July in a new Miami property to provide programming for English-speaking Latinos and other young American “millennials” (those born between the early 1980s and 2000) with similar tastes.

For ABC, America’s third largest broadcaster by revenues, Fusion represents an attempt to ride what Chiqui Cartagena, vice-president of marketing at Univision, describes as “the biggest demographic wave since the baby boom”. Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News, who grew up watching Univision’s Los Angeles station KMEX, says of Univision: “It’s bananas how dominant they are.” It regularly reaches 96 per cent of US Hispanic households, of which about 70 per cent watch no other TV news. But, if Univision brings its coveted demographic to the venture, ABC brings formidable distribution clout and reporting from parts of the world where Univision could not afford or justify coverage.

For Univision, the new channel marks both an expansion and a volte-face. For years, Univision executives would tell advertisers that anyone wanting to reach the most dynamic portion of the US population had to do so in Spanish. “That is a very comfortable position. It’s just not true,” says Isaac Lee, 42, president of Univision News. “I care about influencing the people who are going to be the future of the country. Their main language is English, not Spanish.”

At the heart of the new channel lies news – and Lee. It is hard to compare Univision News with any US rival. Univision News says its average viewer is 44 years old, at least 10 years younger than the average English language news audience. As broadcast news panders to shrinking audiences, Fox News and MSNBC preach to the partisan and CNN turns to new management to reverse falling ratings, Univision News has found growth with hard-hitting investigations, international documentaries and campaigning consumer journalism. Earlier this month, it won a Peabody award for its investigation into deaths caused in Mexico by the Obama administration’s controversial “Fast and Furious” undercover operation, which allowed guns to “walk” across the border.

Daniel Coronell, Lee’s deputy and a prominent Colombian columnist who fled into exile in Miami in 2005, says Univision used to be “a company with a long tradition of avoiding problems”, often happier translating others’ reports than chasing its own stories. But that changed in December 2010 with Isaac Lee’s appointment. As a 23-year-old Colombian investigative TV reporter, Lee had reported that Colombia’s then president had received funding from the Cali cartel. Lee was fired immediately. “Having a government after you in Latin America; that’s not something where you have a lot of fun,” he says.

But Lee bounced back, becoming at 25 editor of Cromos, Latin America’s oldest magazine. “The truth is nobody else wanted it,” he says. But, with investigative journalism and stunts such as setting up photoshoots with the supermodel Claudia Schiffer wearing clothes by Colombian designers, Lee sharpened the once fading title’s edge. By 26 he had become editor of Semana, Colombia’s biggest magazine, breaking stories about corruption that prompted ministers’ resignations, before, in the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, building a news portal that was spun off and sold to Terra, one of the hot internet stocks of the time. “They paid an obscene amount of money. Obscene,” he admits.

Lee branched into a political news site and even film-making but the launch of Poder and Loft, two aspirational titles for Spanish speakers in Latin America and the US, got him increasingly interested in the US Hispanic market.

Though Lee now has an ambitious network to run and another one to launch, he calls me from Mexico a few weeks after our meeting in Miami. He is there leading a Univision team investigating corruption allegations against a union leader. “If I’m not doing on the ground reporting, I’m not really enjoying my life,” he explains.

Today Lee lives in Miami’s artist-heavy Coconut Grove neighbourhood in a small, white-painted home that is filled with books and art. Sitting down to lunch next to a lap pool and a strip of garden overhung with mossy trees, he sets out the scale of his ambitions. His task, he says, is to explain to America that “the future of the Hispanic community is not just about the Hispanic community but it’s about the United States’ best interests”. The size of that community means that “if these people are not well, your country is not well”.

The fact that many of Univision’s viewers are struggling economically helps explain their loyalty to its news service, says Sergio Bendixen, a pollster who was first commissioned by the network in 1985, and who helped advise Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign on the Hispanic electorate. With an estimated 11m undocumented immigrants of Hispanic origin now living in the US, Bendixen says: “This is a community that feels it is under attack. For most people, the news is interesting but it doesn’t decide whether you get to stay in your apartment, send your kids to school or stay in the country.”

This relationship, Univision executives say, is what infuses Univision News with its sense of mission as it investigates voter disenfranchisement, leads financial educational campaigns and urges Latinos to make their voices heard in the polling booth.

Keith Summa, a former ABC News producer and one-time CBS News investigative journalist who now runs Univision’s news partnerships, says the broadcaster has become a trusted service to communities around its stations in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. “Our local affiliates get calls all the time asking, ‘What doctor or school do I send my kid to?’” he says.

Coronell says: “We will be the biggest minority in a few years, so the education of the Hispanic members of American society will be a crucial part in order to maintain the leadership of this democracy in the world.” It is hard to imagine his English-language peers making a similar speech but any idea of news being about dispassionate detachment gets short shrift at Univision.

“When Edward R Murrow was covering the Battle of Britain from rooftops in London and going out with RAF flights, the audience did not wonder as to whether he was neutral to who won the second world war,” says Rich Altabef, a CBS News lawyer for more than 30 years who worked with feted reporters such as Mike Wallace before Lee brought him to Univision. As Obama has put immigration reform back on the agenda this year, Univision News has positioned itself as a vocal advocate for change. Lee says he exults in the prospect of “relief for millions of people and broken families”.

Recruits such as Altabef and Gerardo Reyes, who won a Pulitzer Prize with the Miami Herald, symbolise Lee’s intention to produce campaigning journalism. “I’m just loving it,” says Altabef, 65: “[It] does take me back to the [CBS] glory days. I’m feeling young again.”

‘I care about influencing the people who are going to be the future of the country. Their main language is English, not Spanish,’ says Isaac Lee, right, president of Univision News

Habitually dressed in jeans, T-shirt and thick glasses, the bearded Lee manages to come across as both the last romantic in the TV news business and its least sentimental executive. “The first week [at Univision] I fired the number two, three, four, five and six,” he says. Those he hired and promoted are doing 70 per cent more stories a week with the same resources, he adds.

“I have an unbearable sense of urgency,” he explains. “I’m not a polite person. I wouldn’t like to be my boss.” His bosses and underlings seem won over, however. “He’s kind of a force of nature,” says Univision chief executive Randy Falco. “If he was a shoe salesman, I’d be selling shoes right now,” adds Summa. “You can’t say no to Isaac,” Sherwood echoes, “he’s a magician who makes the impossible possible.” Lee will not disclose his budget but industry members suspect it is about $50m a year, about a tenth of that of a big broadcast news network.

This makes Univision News “slightly miraculous”, says Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News executive who is advising the company on its Spanish language TV and digital output. “Anybody from the English news world would quail at what’s expected from the Univision News group given their limited resources.”

Lee signalled his priorities for his limited budget early on when he chose to broadcast an education-themed debate with Obama. “What we killed to do that was the royal wedding,” the biggest item in that year’s budget, Lee laughs.

Lee’s work still attracts political fire, with Republicans protesting at Univision’s coverage of Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, but Lee says the network is neither left nor right. “I don’t care who wins or loses. I just care about a good story,” he says.

He claims not to worry much about the bottom line (“If I fail, they can fire me”) but he adds that his division’s profit margin is growing along with its ratings. Margins matter at Univision, one of the largest private equity buyouts of the bubble that burst in 2008. Still overburdened with debt from that $12.3bn deal, struck in 2006, its owners can ill-afford for a new venture to fail.

Launching Fusion is no small task, Coronell points out. Quite apart from creating a new round-the-clock network and navigating a joint venture, it involves moving from working in Spanish to working in two languages, “which is for many of us a challenge”, he says, laughing. Standing out from other English-language channels will also be challenging. Univision and ABC say Fusion will focus on “the issues most relevant to US Hispanics”, including the economy, entertainment, music, food, immigration, pop culture, education, politics, and health.

Bendixen says he had assumed that English-dominant Latinos would have little interest in Hispanic-focused media but his polling has proved him wrong. “Many said they sometimes tried to follow the news on Univision but their Spanish wasn’t good enough to understand it.” Most Univision viewers are bilingual, says Falco, but “they come here because they trust us”.

Lee is withering about English language rivals’ attempts to appeal to Hispanic audiences, saying that they give little coverage to topics such as immigration.

“They think getting a Hispanic voice is getting a reporter with a Spanish last name,” he says. “It is unbelievable how gringos believe they can have a Latino tone. They end up offending the community and patronising them. We are [portrayed] as the gardeners and the maids.”

While many analysts doubt Americans’ appetite for foreign news, Univision and ABC are betting that English-speaking Americans are interested in Latin America’s economic growth story, Venezuela after Hugo Chávez or an Argentine Pope, and will come to Fusion for coverage they cannot find elsewhere. “Americans are becoming more Latinised and Latinos are becoming more Americanised,” Falco argues.

Sherwood and Lee have been engaging in a similar process. “The DNA exchange is well under way,” Sherwood says, noting that ABC News called in Univision’s Emmy-winning chief anchors, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, to provide a Hispanic perspective in its election coverage.

“In success, this venture will create real value for Disney-ABC and for Univision,” says Sherwood, who is also optimistic about his English-language news business. “I challenge the assumption our best days are behind us,” he says. “We see a real future in network news.”

The Latino audience offers Fusion and Univision one great advantage in particular. “Our viewers are integrated into the economic activity and development of the United States for at least two decades more than the average viewers of English language networks,” Coronell says. Young Hispanic viewers, in other words, will outlive other network news audiences.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor

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