Telemundo Making Changes to Meet New Competition

Staff Reporter

Telemundo Communications Group Inc. is quietly making management changes at its local television stations, KVEA-TV (Channel 52) and KWHY-TV (Channel 22) as the network gets a strong early challenge by the TeleFutura network, a product of rival Univision Communications Inc.

The moves also precede ownership of Telemundo by NBC, which announced it was buying the company in November.

Telemundo Group President Rick Blangiardi said the departure of KVEA Vice President and General Manager Fernando Lopez had nothing to do with the NBC deal and was a "mutually agreed upon" decision. But a source familiar with the situation said that the pending purchase had raised concerns about Lopez' lack of experience.

"NBC buys us and the heat is on. L.A. is the pot of gold. If L.A. gets cold, the whole group shivers," the source said.

Lopez, who started his television career as an intern at Telemundo, had returned to the network in July 2000 to revive KVEA. At the time, the station was still recovering from the ratings dive it suffered when Telemundo dropped telenovelas in prime time and replaced them with remakes of English-language hits like "Charlie's Angels" and "Starsky & Hutch."

While Lopez had spent years as a producer and news executive at several stations, he had never run a television operation. He was the assistant news director at KCBS-TV (Channel 2) before taking the reigns at KVEA, Telemundo's flagship station.

Under his watch, KVEA expanded its news department, added several newscasts to its lineup and saw its ratings increase. Lopez also helped oversee the transition of KWHY, which Telemundo purchased last year for $239 million.

"Fernando made many strong contributions to this station during his buts," Blangiardi said. Reticent to discuss Lopez' departure, Blangiardi said the move had been in discussion for a few months. He was conducting a nationwide search but had no candidates in mind for the post as of last week. Lopez could not be reached for comment.

Also gone is Gustavo Dominguez, director of planning and administration, who resigned to start his own business, Blangiardi said. Telemundo does not plan to hire a replacement for Dominguez, who left the same day as Lopez.

Creating positions

Telemundo has made some additions to its local stations, such as hiring more sales people and creating a vice president of programming position for KWHY, an independent station that does not carry network shows. Frank Bedoya, a KWHY veteran, took on the station's programming duties on Monday. KWHY also added four weekend newscasts to its line-up this month.

"The landscape has changed," Blangiardi said. "This is a six-station deep Spanish-language market and the competition and the bar has been raised substantially and we are simply trying to respond with the very best team."

Telemundo has reason to be worried about its position in the market, said David Miller, an analyst with Sutro & Co. in L.A.

TeleFutura, geared toward younger and bilingual Latinos, has done well since premiering Jan. 14. Its local station, KFTR, has beat out KVEA in primetime ratings on at least four nights and its weekday morning cartoon block has consistently come in at No. 2 behind Univision's KMEX (Channel 34).

"Thus far, TeleFutura seems to be doing what it set out to do, which is sift viewers away from Telemundo, sift viewers away from the English-language networks...while not diluting viewership from the flagship, Univision," Miller said.

Millie Carrasquillo, senior vice president of research for Telemundo, mostly attributed TeleFutura's wins to curiosity about the new network and pointed out that Telemundo has seen its ratings go up since November. But she conceded there are some time slots in which Telemundo needs to do better.

Morning time-block woes

"We're challenged in our morning time block," she said. "There are certain day parts in our mix that show there is a potential to garner larger ratings."

Ratings winner KMEX-TV remains the most popular station with advertisers, but second place, which usually goes to KVEA, may be up for grabs, according to Raquel Tomasino, senior vice president and director of media services at Ad Americas, an L.A. advertising agency.

KVEA is "a very good second with TeleFutura on their toes giving the marketplace another second-place station," she said.

Univision's launching of TeleFutura is part of the company's plans to secure its lead in the Spanish-language market. The L.A.-based company recently reached long-term programming agreements with Mexico's Grupo Televisa and Venevision of Venezuela, producers of some of the most popular programming coming out of Latin America.

General Electric Co.-owned NBC announced in October it would buy Telemundo for $2 billion in stock and cash and assume $700 million in debt. NBC Chairman Bob Wright said he hopes the Spanish-language network will bring in up to $600 million in revenues to NBC in two years.

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