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.

"Novelas and movies are a touch of their home country, and Latinos like to feel close to their home culture," said Lopez, who likens his return to KVEA to a homecoming. "It's just that we are Mexicanos. That's who we are."

Late last year, Telemundo dropped the strategy, returning telenovelas and classic Latino movies to its lineup. Ratings immediately improved, as did advertising revenues. Although Lopez declined to disclose specific financial figures, he said that by early August, KVEA had taken in as much in advertising revenue this year as it did in all of last year.

But while KVEA's four prime-time telenovelas have helped restore some of the station's lost viewership, there's still a lot of rebuilding to do.

Past glories

When Lopez last worked at the station in 1992, KVEA was the top-ranked Spanish-language station in L.A., with 60 percent of the Spanish viewing audience, compared to KMEX, which had 40 percent of the market at the time, according to Ken Hansely, research director at the Telemundo station. Soon after, however, Univision inked a deal that gave it the exclusive right to broadcast programming created by Televisa, Mexico's major television network.

With Telemundo forced to go to secondary markets for programming, KVEA's lead began to slip away, and by early this year, the station's share had plummeted to a mere 24 percent of L.A.'s Spanish-language audience.

Lopez, who began his career as an intern at KVEA, left the station for another job and returned in 1992 as news director, has moved through the television ranks as a producer and news executive at KMEX, KTMD (the Telemundo TV affiliate in Houston), KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles. Most recently, he served as assistant news director for KCBS-TV Channel 2.

He is focusing most of his initial efforts on building KVEA's news programming. The station will double its operating budget and the size of its news staff, which now numbers about 35, adding reporters, anchors and producers to its ranks.

The station currently produces only two half-hour news shows. That's because KMEX pretty much owns the Spanish-language news market, thanks to a two-hour early-morning news program and an award-winning evening news program.

Beginning next year, KVEA will add a one-hour broadcast at 6 a.m. and a half-hour broadcast at 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday to its current weekday news shows at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. In addition, Lopez said, it will offer news at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. on weekends.

News programming is especially important, partially because Spanish-language audiences hunger for information about international events affecting the Latino community that are not covered in depth at English-speaking stations. Newscasts are also seen as critical to a Spanish-language channel's success because they help strengthen viewership for shows that come before and after the news program.

Industry experts said KVEA has a good shot at a comeback despite the dominant position held by Univision. The Spanish-speaking market is growing rapidly in Southern California, and KVEA stands to benefit if it can offer the right programming mix.

"I think the market is waiting to see the new life at Telemundo," said Anita Santiago, president of Anita Santiago Advertising Inc., an advertising agency that specializes in the Latino market. "There's not that many choices in Spanish. Yeah, Telemundo lost footing. But it still has a place in people's hearts."

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