Univision CEO sees profits in English-language news

Randy Falco,  CEO of Univision, pauses during a tour of the Spanish-language network's recently construction news headquarters in Doral. It will house both the Univision news team and Fusion, the new English-language joint venture with ABC.
Randy Falco, CEO of Univision, pauses during a tour of the Spanish-language network's recently construction news headquarters in Doral. It will house both the Univision news team and Fusion, the new English-language joint venture with ABC.
The Miami Herald / Douglas Hanks

Randy Falco

Title: CEO, Univision Communications

Based: In New York

Career: Univision CEO, 2011 to present; AOL CEO, 2006 to 2009; NBC, 1975 to 2006. Positions included president of NBC Universal Television Group, and chief operating officer of NBC’s Olympic broadcasts in Salt Lake City (2002), Syndey (2000), Atlanta (1996), and Barcelona (1992).

Of note: Falco presided over the creation of two notable studios: the Today show’s ‘Window on the World’ studio in Manhattan and MSNBC’s newsroom in Secaucus, NJ.

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Randy Falco spent his career in television and media, and he thinks he and his staff have cracked the code for selling news to the next generation.

The CEO of Univision already presides over the dominant network for Spanish-language television. It recently won the bragging rights of snagging the No. 1 rating of any network during the summer re-run season, beating out NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox for adult viewers under 50. Now Univision is partnering with ABC to launch Fusion, a cable network ostensibly aimed at English-speaking Hispanics but increasingly looking like a channel designed for young people in general.

“We’re trying to do a little bit of parody and offer a bit of sense of humor around the news in the way it’s presented. We believe that’s really the way young people consume news these days,’’ Falco, 59, said during a recent interview in Fusion’s new studio in Doral. “I really think that every single cable news service that is successful has a point of view, has a voice. We’re hoping that voice for us is going to be a slightly different slant on the news.”

A former Simpsons writer who doesn’t speak Spanish (Billy Kimball) is the chief programming officer in Fusion’s new Doral headquarters, a news complex it shares with Univision. Falco’s staff hired the former top executive at the Daily Show, David Javerbaum, to preside over comedy programming from a Fusion office in Los Angeles.

Fusion shares its new space with Univision’s news division, allowing for collaboration between the English and Spanish arms. Jorge Ramos, who shares anchor duties at Univision with María Elena Salinas, hosts an hourlong primetime show in English for Fusion, and Univision’s popular anchor from its Los Angeles affiliate, León Krauze, also will host a program on pop-culture on the network scheduled to launch Oct. 28.

Univision and ABC see demographics of their side, as a new generation of Hispanics turn away from Spanish-language programming. And while they’re leaning on an irreverent approach to the day’s news to build audience, the news business can be a challenge. Al Jazeera’s ballyhooed launch of a network in the United States in late August only drew an initial audience of fewer than 60,000 people.

The former CEO of AOL, Falco spent most of his career at the top of NBC. He joined Univision in January 2011. And while he runs a network self-branded as the “Hispanic Heartbeat of America,’’ Falco doesn’t speak Spanish. So Fusion will be the first time he can actually watch and understand the content driving the network’s profits, which hit $40 million in the most recent quarterly report.

Falco says the language barrier has not been an issue. In 2011, he told Ad Week: “You know, it’s funny, but it doesn’t all come down to language. It’s not a dodge: I think language is important, but the culture is so much more important, and you need to understand the differences not only between the general-market culture and our audience but also within the Hispanic community as a whole.”

(Falco holds the title of CEO and runs the New York-based company, Univision Communications Inc., which includes radio, television, and other business ventures, including toys, licensing and Univision-branded debit cards. The company’s best-known face locally is the Spanish-speaking Cesar Conde, who is president of Univision Networks and presides over Univision’s national broadcasting network. Fusion also falls under Conde’s portfolio.)

Falco and his top executives recently sat down with reporters from the Associated Press, The Miami Herald and Reuters to talk about Fusion. The sit-down came after he toured Fusion and Univision’s news operation for the first time in mid-August. In a conference overlooking the shared 15,000-square-foot newsroom (which Falco thinks may be the largest in the U.S. television industry) he talked comedy, the evolving tastes in news, and while Al Jazeera faces a far steeper hill than Fusion does.

Edited excerpts from the exchange follow, with the questions provided by the three news organizations. All answers are by Falco.

Q: How many homes do you want to be in?

We want to be a fully distributed network. The short-term goal is to get into 60 million homes. That responsibility rests with ABC.

Q: Would it be fair to describe the division of labor as Univision taking the lead on the content, whereas ABC is in charge of the distribution side?

Well, yes, that is the way it has actually been laid out. Because of the expertise and knowledge of the Hispanic community in this country, obviously Univision will have editorial control. Sales and distribution will be ABC’s responsibility. But we also are going to rely on ABC for their worldwide news-gathering, as well. Footage, feeds, breaking stories.

Think about it. ABC doesn’t really have another outlet during the day. They don’t have a cable news network. This is their cable news network. Obviously they could break into their network during the day, but those break-ins generally don’t last longer than five or ten minutes. Correspondents love to be on the air. The one way to do that is through Fusion.

We found that with NBC when we did MSNBC. The correspondents were the ones who really pushed the hardest to file stories. That’s what they do. And the only real outlet they had — and they discovered that quickly — was on MSNBC.

The same will be true for us. You won’t want to necessarily break in for longer than five or 10 minutes on a big story on Univision. But you can tell the audience if they want to follow something — it will be a little more difficult from Spanish to English, but at least there will always be another place to go.

Q: What is the focus of the content?

The focus is through the eyes of Hispanics in the United States. It’s not that you ignore stories that English language viewers would enjoy. We’re certainly not looking to exclude anybody. But we are going to have a very special point of view from the eyes of the Hispanics in this country.

Q: Who are your competitors?

There aren’t that many competitors yet in English. Though I think a lot of the English language services will tell you they’re beginning to pay closer attention to the Spanish point of view of their audiences. Because it’s growing. On the Spanish side, of course, there is Telemundo. But they don’t have the size and scope of our operations. And CNN has a Spanish language service as well.

Q: I read with interest the release the other day of the hiring of the late-night producer [David Javerbaum]. It sounds like a fascinating job he’s going to have. What kind of a job do you perceive for him?

We have a special point of view toward Hispanics living in this country, but also mostly young Hispanics. Remember the average age of our audience is about 20 years younger than the average age of an Anglo station.

We’re obviously very cognizant of that. We believe young people today actually consume news in a much different way. It’s not that they ignore news. But they just consume it differently. It’s really done with a sense of humor. I think that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to do a little bit of parody and offer a bit of sense of humor around the news in the way it’s presented. We believe that’s really the way young people consume news these days.

I really think that every single cable news service that is successful has a point of view, has a voice. We’re hoping that voice for us is going to be a slightly different slant on the news.

Q: Which network does that well now?

Well, Comedy Central does it very well. Jon Stewart does it very well. Colbert does it very well. When you look at young people and how they react to news, those are the kind of shows that really resonate with them the most.

Q: I understand those stations do the comedy well. But you’re talking about injecting comedy into the broadcast beyond the parody show?

We’re going to do a parody show. It’s a sprinkling of hard news. But it’s also just a point of view of how you look at things.

It has to be different. It can’t be just another version of what CNN and MSNBC and Fox are doing. It just can’t be.

Q: Does your choice for prime time anchors really reflect that approach? Jorge Ramos looks pretty traditional.

Well, Jorge is probably the only traditional one. I wouldn’t say the other primetime hosts are necessarily traditional…

Q: Three years from now, how will you know if Fusion is succeeding?

I think by level of distribution. Also, whether or not we are part of the conversation. I’m not trying to be funny or elusive. It’s not necessarily in three years going to be measured solely by ratings. Although, we love ratings.

Q: Does Al Jazeera America have any role in your thinking on how to roll out this station? It is an alternative for news, too.

The answer is no. They haven’t really revealed what their operating principles were until recently. It’s clear we’re not going in that direction.

Q: What direction?

It sounds to me to be a very, very hard-news direction. Good luck with that.

An earlier version of this story misstated Cesar Conde's duties as president of Univision Networks. He oversees Univision's national television operations, while Kevin Cuddihy, president of Univision Television Group, oversees Univision affiliates.

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