Mexican Mainstay Hits Airwaves for Sweeps


Staff Reporter

Brace yourselves: The Spanish-language soap opera "El Privilegio De Amar" (the right to love) that has been wowing Mexican viewers is about to hit L.A. airwaves during May sweeps, no less.

And as is often the way with novelas, there's a lot to the story:

Luciana Duval is owner of a successful fashion house and wife of a television celebrity. In her youth, Luciana, an orphan, worked as a servant in the house of Juan de la Cruz, an aspiring priest. The two share a brief affair and Luciana ends up pregnant. She abandons the baby girl, Cristina, who is raised in a convent. Mother and daughter are later reunited when Cristina becomes a model at Luciana's fashion house but both remain unaware of the other's identity until Juan and Luciana decide to look for their daughter and discover it's Cristina.

"It's one of those soaps that people have been waiting for," said Patricia Ramos, communications manager for KMEX-TV (Channel 34), which will launch the serial on May 13. "The viewers call here asking about when this is coming."

Executives at the station, which is owned by Los Angeles-based Univision Communications Inc., said the timing has nothing to do with ratings sweeps because KMEX airs first-run programming year-round.

Nevertheless, "El Privilegio De Amar" is likely to take viewers away from L.A.'s English-language stations, and that speaks volumes about how Spanish-language stations have gained a major foothold in the nation's second-largest television market.

Two KMEX shows, "Amigas y Rivales" and "Salome," recently were the two highest rated shows during prime time, a first for the station. The novelas beat out "Spin City" on KABC-TV (Channel 7), "Frasier" on KNBC-TV (Channel 4) and "That '70s Show" on KTTV-TV (Channel 11) on April 23.

"It was just a matter of time before (KMEX) took over the Anglo stations," said Peter Keir, broadcast supervisor at media buyer Round 2 Communications LLC. "The general market people are looking at it but I don't think there's 'freaking out' concerns just yet."

Competition dismissed

The growth of KMEX is hardly surprising given the rapid increase in the area's Latino population. One broadcast analyst argued that in a market like L.A., the Latino market is the "general market." Latinos made up 44.6 percent, or 4.2 million, of L.A. County's population, up from 38 percent, or 3.3 million, in 1990.

Despite such gains, it's hard to find an executive of an L.A. English-language station who expresses much concern. They usually don't consider Spanish-language channels as competition even for a potential blockbuster like "El Privilegio De Amar."

"If a show is being broadcast in Spanish, there's very little we can do to convert Spanish-language television viewers," said an executive at one of L.A.'s general market, or English-language, stations.

"We share the business of broadcasting but we have two different audiences," he said. "We'd love for their audience to watch more of our shows, but really, there's only so far we can go to make that happen and vice versa."

Asked if the Latino stations affect planning for sweeps, an executive at another English-language station said: "Do we sit here and spend a lot of time with Univision and Telemundo and their programming? No, we don't."

That kind of thinking could be shortsighted, warned Roberto Orci, president of La Agencia de Orci & Asociados, a local advertising agency that focuses on the Latino market. The area's growing Latino population, he said, will lead to an "inevitable loss" of audience for English-language stations.

"What the general market stations need to do is consider themselves 'total market' stations, not 'general market' stations, because the general market, rest-in-peace, is dead," Orci said. "You can't be in the general market and think of the general market as the be all and end all."

Univision's lock

Over the years, executives of English-language stations have presumed that as Latinos spend more time in the U.S., and the number of second and third generation Latinos increases, more of them will turn to English-language television. But that's not happening.

"(Latinos) continue to prefer their entertainment information in Spanish," said Paul Sweeney, a broadcast analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston. "As the (Hispanic) population continues to grow the story just gets better and better for Spanish-language media."

Sweeney said that while rates remain uneven at the network level, KMEX could get general market rates at the local level because of the size of the area's Latino population.

"It's always a concern when the ad dollars are being divided up among more players in the market," conceded one local station executive. "How you compete against that for an English-language, general market station is very difficult."

Compounding the challenge is that Univision has a lock on some of the most popular Spanish-language shows in the world. The network, which long has been the biggest player in the nation's Spanish market, was recently guaranteed access to many of the top shows coming out of Latin America through long-term programming agreements with Grupo Televisa of Mexico and Venevision of Venezuela.

That makes it harder for Univision rival Telemundo Communications Group Inc. to compete in the market. (General Electric Co.-owned NBC is buying Telemundo for about $2 billion in stock and cash.)

Some argue that KMEX does well because there is less competition in the Spanish-language market than there is among general market outlets.

"Let's see how they do when they have nine Spanish-language television stations to compete against," said one local TV executive.

Such a scenario may not be that far off. The local Spanish market has grown quickly over the past several months.

Univision recently launched a second broadcast network, TeleFutura, which includes KFTR-TV (Channel 46) in L.A. No. 2 rated Telemundo owns KVEA-TV (Channel 52) and KWHY-TV (Channel 22). Another fairly new Spanish-language network, Azteca America, launched KAZA-TV (Channel 54) last year.

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