Univision Communications has long held a comfortable lead in the Spanish-language television market, with a virtual lock on some of the most popular programming out of Latin America.
But don't tell that to NBC, which is set to purchase Telemundo Communications Group Inc., owner of the nation's No. 2 Spanish-language network.
In fact, NBC News President Andrew Lack teased Univision Chairman Jerrold Perenchio at a recent press conference held to announce the NBC buy. "We're coming Jerry," Lack said. "Watch your back."
Not so fast. It would take a large investment to make Telemundo truly competitive with Los Angeles-based Univision, a move NBC may be unwilling to take, given that the Hispanic market, while growing more rapidly than others, is far from yielding the level of ad revenues enjoyed by English-language networks.
General Electric Co.-owned NBC already has agreed to pay what some analysts say is too much for Telemundo $2 billion in cash and stock and assumption of $700 million in debt.
"Only if the proper resources are put into quality programming will Telemundo make a major dent on Univision," said Federico Subervi, a University of Texas professor who has been studying Latino-oriented media in the United States.
"Univision's leadership position as the No. 1 Spanish-language television network in the U.S. is not currently at risk," wrote Gordon Hodge, an analyst with Thomas Weisel Partners, in a recent report.
Univision officials declined to comment.
When Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media took over Telemundo in 1998, they made the mistake of assuming they could simply take English-language programming and adapt it for Spanish-speaking viewers. The resulting Spanish-language take-offs of "Charlie's Angels," "One Day at a Time," and other English-language shows proved to be huge flops and cost Telemundo much of its primetime audience.
"You cannot necessarily take a franchise that's very popular for Anglo-oriented media and translate it into Spanish and have that translate into success," said David Miller, an analyst for Sutro & Co.
To be successful in Hispanic media, you have to take both language and culture into account, said Robert Orci, president of La Agencia de Orci & Asociados, an L.A. agency that specializes in Latino advertising. "If it was just language, all we would have to do is translate 'All In the Family,'" he said.
There already is talk of NBC introducing shows to Telemundo modeled on "Dateline NBC" and "Weakest Link," but officials have said the network won't be making any major programming changes for at least a year.
With broadcast veteran James McNamara at the helm, Telemundo is unlikely to repeat its past mistake, given that the network enjoyed a sharp ratings increase after returning to telenovelas in primetime since he came on in 1999.
Even with the financial backing of NBC, Telemundo could have a hard time drawing viewers from Univision, which gets much of its programming from Mexico's Televisa, producer of some of the world's most popular Spanish-language shows. Univision is guaranteed first pick of Televisa shows through 2017.
But Univision's relationship with Televisa has become strained and the Mexican production company has approached NBC about co-production deals that would allow it to circumvent the agreement with Univision, Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst Jessica Reif Cohen wrote in a recent research report.
Initially, NBC plans to focus on increasing Telemundo's market share which stands at about 25 percent and work to improve its distribution in secondary markets, where the Spanish-language network often airs on low-powered stations with limited reach.
"There is no question Univision now faces its toughest competition, as Telemundo will have better financing, distribution and cross-platform marketing capability and improved programming power," Cohen said.
Advertising is one area where NBC could provide Telemundo with a significant boost, given NBC's longstanding relationships with mainstream advertisers.
Ironically, the NBC purchase may make advertisers more likely to advertise on Univision as well. "What has resulted from this acquisition is that they (NBC) pretty much have given the Hispanic market a lot of validity," Orci said.
Meanwhile, both Telemundo and Univision have been undertaking new programming initiatives. Telemundo recently converted its women-oriented cable network, Galavasion, into Mundos, which targets younger Latino viewers.
Starting in January, Univision will try to attract Latinos who watch English-language television with the launch of Telefutura, its second network, which is expected to become the No. 3 Spanish-language network in the nation.
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