Telemundo has long been like a remote Caribbean island, cut off from its sprawling media homeland.
NBCUniversal acquired the Spanish-language television network a decade ago for $2 billion but became discouraged by its seemingly limited prospects. But Comcast Corp.’s takeover of NBCUniversal last year may be building Telemundo a bridge to the mainland.
“Telemundo now has the full support of Comcast and NBCUniversal,” said Emilio Romano, a former Mexican airline chief executive who was hired a year ago to run Telemundo. “For them, Telemundo is clearly a diamond in the rough.”
The Miami-based network, which began in 1954 as a single Puerto Rico TV station, had long been viewed as an “East Coast” outlet infused with Caribbean flavor — not the right ingredients for the majority of U.S. Latinos, two-thirds of whom are from Mexico or are of Mexican descent.
Appealing to viewers with Central American heritage has become central to NBCUniversal’s campaign to grow Telemundo. But there’s a hitch: Telemundo’s rival, Univision Communications, has a lock on Mexico’s top-rated prime-time soap operas, plus contracts with top Mexican actors and the rights to some of the most popular Mexican soccer teams — making Univision the network of choice for most Mexican immigrants.
So Telemundo has had to shell out tens of millions of dollars to produce original programming to compete in the increasingly crowded field of Spanish-language television.
“They are a hungry No. 2,” said Carmen Baez, president of Latin America operations for advertising behemoth Omnicom Group. “It’s like that old Avis rental-car slogan: ‘We try harder.’ ”
Since Comcast took majority control of NBCUniversal in January 2011, it has installed new management at Telemundo and increased the operating budget. Last year Comcast agreed to spend about $600 million for the rights to broadcast the FIFA World Cup soccer tournaments in 2015 through 2022 — nearly double the amount that Univision currently pays.
The company increased Telemundo’s annual programming budget nearly 20 percent and steered more resources to local Telemundo stations.
“It’s a 360-degree programming strategy built around cultural relevance,” said Lauren Zalaznick, who oversees Telemundo as NBCUniversal’s chairman of entertainment and digital networks.
For example, because many Latino families watch television together, Telemundo licensed films from Walt Disney Co.’s Pixar Animation Studios, creator of such blockbusters as Toy Story and Cars, to build a Sunday night movie block. Telemundo has slowly bolstered its daytime schedule, sending its TV judge, Ana Maria Polo — who has been dubbed the “Latino Judge Judy” — on a road trip to Los Angeles and broadcasting more news from Mexico.
The company also has paid more attention to Mun2, its bilingual youth-oriented cable channel. This week the channel was dealt a devastating blow with the unexpected death of its reality show superstar, Jenni Rivera, in a plane crash in northern Mexico.
Telemundo draws an average of 1.2 million viewers in prime time, an increase of 5 percent over 2011 and 18 percent more than in 2010, according to ratings firm Nielsen. Univision’s ratings have held steady but its second broadcast network, TeleFutura, is down 5 percent this year.