A young man sets off to make his mark in the world, then returns home to find it near ruin, and vows to restore his homeland's past glory.

It sounds like the plot line for a telenovela, those prime-time soap operas that are the staples of Spanish-language television. But it's actually a real-life drama playing out at Spanish-language station KVEA-TV Channel 52 in Burbank.

Last month, Fernando Lopez returned to the Telemundo Group Inc.-owned station, where he had begun his career 15 years ago. His new job as vice president and general manager is to bring the station back to its glory days and improve upon its woefully low ratings.

A news veteran who has worked both in Spanish- and English-language television, Lopez is planning a blitz that will double the station's news-gathering and broadcasting resources, and he has a number of other programming changes in the works.

Hefty competition

But to reverse KVEA's troubles, he will also have to go mano a mano with the other Spanish-language stations in the market: KWHY-TV Channel 22, an independent that has emerged recently as an aggressive competitor, and KMEX-TV Channel 34, a Univision Communications Inc.-owned behemoth that commands the vast majority of the Spanish-language viewing audience.

In July, KVEA averaged a 1.3 rating and a 3 share in the Los Angeles TV market, according to Nielsen Media Research. ("Rating" represents the percentage of total TV households tuned in; "share" represents the percentage of the current viewing audience that is watching that channel.) Its prime-time average was a 1.4 rating with a 2 share.

Although the size of KVEA's total audience has nearly doubled since November 1999, the station's viewership still pales in comparison to that of its chief rival, KMEX, with a 3.9 rating and 9 share overall and a 6.4 rating and 10 share in prime time. And while KVEA is beating KWHY in overall ratings, it is lagging behind that station in prime-time ratings, which were 1.5 with a 3 share for KWHY in July.

Observers blame KVEA's problems on a decision by its parent network about two years ago to add English-language programming and change its core lineup. Hoping to capture the growing population of bilingual Latinos, Telemundo revamped its programming to what Lopez calls "an anglicized format" of sitcoms and one-hour action dramas.

The Spanish-language audience has always shown a decided preference for telenovelas, serials that extend over several months and often have Cinderella-like themes. The revamped shows, low-budget Spanish-language retreads of such American hits from the '70s as "Starsky & Hutch" and "One Day at a Time," could not compete, Lopez said.

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