By FRANK SWERTLOW
Telemundo Network LLC, the country's No. 2 Spanish-language TV network, isn't wasting any time reinventing itself.
After being acquired in August by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media, Culver City-based Telemundo this month begins rolling out a new prime-time lineup that closely resembles a mainstream English-language network: heavy on sitcoms and action shows.
It marks a dramatic departure from Telemundo's former emphasis on novelas, soap operas produced primarily in Latin America.
Its strategy is based on the realization that an increasing number of its viewers were born in the United States, are bilingual, and view a fair amount of mainstream English-language TV programs and movies.
"We want to appeal to the best of both worlds," said Nely Galan, Telemundo's president of entertainment. "We tell Latinos that they are more and not less for speaking two languages, having two cultures and two sets of problems and two solutions."
Telemundo's lineup includes films that are popular with mainstream U.S. audiences, including Spanish-language films such as "Like Water for Chocolate" and Latino-themed films such as "Stand and Deliver."
The network will also air "The Thorn Birds," the old ABC miniseries, dubbed into Spanish, as well as "Chico and the Man," the 1970s sitcom starring Freddie Prinze.
"Freddie remains one of our biggest Latino stars," said Galan. "The subject matter and issues still remain fresh with our audience."
Besides those dubbed reruns, Telemundo also is rolling out several shows that are based on popular U.S. shows of years gone by.
It has Spanish-language action shows based on "Starsky & Hutch" and "Rescue 911" and Spanish-language sitcoms based on "Who's the Boss" and "One Day at a Time."
One series, "Angeles," inspired by "Charlie's Angels," has been pulled from the schedule and is being recast. It will premiere sometime next year.
Telemundo faces an enormous gap with Univision Communications Inc., the nation's No. 1 Spanish-language network. Univision has 81 percent of the prime-time U.S. Hispanic audience in the crucial 18- to 49-year-old demographic sought by advertisers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
In total viewership, Univision attracts 21 percent of U.S. Hispanic households compared with Telemundo's 3.5 percent, according to Nielsen.
Another part of Telemundo's strategy is special programs on topical subjects. For instance, last week it broadcast a documentary on Sammy Sosa, the Chicago Cub who finished second to St Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire in the home-run derby.
In years past, Univision and Telemundo depended heavily on novelas (soap operas) from Latin American countries. Univision's novelas have been decidedly more popular, prompting Sony to steer Telemundo onto its new programming track.
Telemundo, however, is not totally abandoning its novelas. The soaps will still air during the daytime, and Mexico's No. 1 soap, "Mirada de Mujer," will debut in November.
In 1997, the network posted a $13.4 million net loss. This year it is projecting a net loss of $2.9 million.
"Sony has deep pockets and can sustain them, but how long Telemundo can remain in the red remains to be seen," said Steve Cesinger, an investment banker at Los Angeles-based Greif & Co. "Telemundo has always been looked at as the underdog. Now they have the money to go head to head."
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