Tears, fears, frustrations, intrigue and painful farewells — they are the ingredients of any good telenovela. But on Friday, those emotions broke free from the land of fiction and into the lives of the employees of the main Spanish language television networks in the United States as layoffs and restructuring hit both companies and their Miami offices.
At Telemundo, more than 150 employees were laid off. At Univision, the number was about 20, though insiders say more may be coming. The number of layoffs does not reach the “mass layoff” threshold that would require the businesses to file Warn Notices with the state of Florida. Notices are required when a business lays off one-third of its personnel.
Uncertainty reigns as the industry falters and young bilingual Hispanics choose English television on demand.
The crisis even has top management baffled. Randy Falco, the CEO of Spanish-language television giant Univision Communications, unexpectedly announced his retirement last week — just four months after the company renewed his contract.
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Those in lower positions also are suffering. At Telemundo Studios in Miami, the work day “seemed like a wake,” according to one of more than 150 employees dismissed from the technical production area.
The network is preparing to move next month to a new ultramodern global headquarters near the intersection of Florida’s Turnpike and Northwest 25th Street, on land acquired with tax benefits from the state and Miami-Dade County. Telemundo promised in return to “retain 800 jobs and create 150 jobs with an average salary of $89,000,” according to the South Florida Business Journal.
But Ernesto Álvarez, an audio supervisor who was fired on March 8, wonders if that promise was an empty one.
“We had meetings with bosses who told us that everything would be fine in the new headquarters,” Álvarez said to El Nuevo Herald. “But at 6 p.m. they started calling people in to Human Resources one by one, and although we gave our lives for this company, they fired us. They will give us only 4 weeks of salary.”
Alfredo Richard, vice president of Corporate Communications at NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, has a different story. Payroll reductions serve “to ensure the long-term success of our business,” he explained.
“Telemundo has successfully redefined what it means to be a Hispanic media company and become a destination for innovation,” Richard said.
“We are committed to investing in this strategy because, through innovation and agility, we will remain competitive and maintain our leadership. By reviewing our next production plan and creative needs, and considering the time needed to prepare our new studios at Telemundo Center, we are adjusting our production lines,” he said. He highlighted high ratings that have driven the network to the top of the industry among the coveted segments of adults ages 18-49.
The layoffs at Telemundo affected one of two entire production crews in charge of filming telenovelas and scripted series both inside and outside the studios. Some of the ousted employees contend that the layoffs coincide with the recent transfer of 50 percent of the network's original productions to Colombia and Mexico as well as high executive costs.
Verónica Villafañe, editor of Media Moves, a popular blog that covers Hispanics in the communications industry, told El Nuevo Herald that the motivation behind the restructurings, both at Telemundo and Univision, should be questioned.
“At Univision there will obviously be a change of command, and I get the feeling that there will be more influence from Televisa,” the expert explained, noting that several managers of the North American network have been assigned to leadership positions in Televisa, the Mexican media conglomerate.
On the Telemundo network, a separate entity of Telemundo Studios, personnel adjustments also were made at the beginning of February. One of those affected by the dismissals was Angie Sandoval, veteran newswoman and correspondent for Noticiero Telemundo. She has since found a freelance position with Univision.
“Telemundo made a gigantic investment in the new facilities, and we would have to see if they went over budget on one of their projects,” said Villafañe, who was surprised by the layoffs at Telemundo studios since the television station “boasted of its original productions for Hispanics in the United States.”
Meanwhile, at Univision, the work environment is bleak, say employees. Layoffs are also anticipated at any time, they said.
Last week, Univision announced that it had failed in its bid to launch an Initial Public Offering of shares (IPO), leaving investors without an exit plan. The company suspended its IPO because of “the prevailing conditions in the market,” according to a document sent to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
A source familiar with Univision’s restructuring told the Los Angeles Times that the company’s external financial consultants are advising the company cut $200 million in costs, a huge sum that could result in mass layoffs.
At Univision, 20 positions have been cut from various departments so far as part of cost-cutting measures, including two high-level executives in Fusion Media Group, CEO Felipe Holguín and Daniel Eilemberg, president and chief content officer. Fusion Media Group — home to an English-language television network and English digital publications including The Onion — was launched in 2016 to connect with young and diverse audiences.
Falco’s resignation came a day after the departure of Univision chief financial director Francisco López-Balboa, hired in part to boost the IPO process. The executive went “in search of other opportunities,” the company said.
Meanwhile, smaller local television stations geared to recent Cuban arrivals are also suffering. On Tuesday, America TeVe Channel 41 ousted María Laria, a longtime staple of Spanish-language television. Her show, Arrebatados, was canceled along with the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. More than a dozen employees lost their jobs and more layoffs are expected this week.
The Los Angeles Times points to two significant industry challenges: demographic shifts and Trump’s position on immigration.
“Immigration has fueled the audience of Univision’s radio stations and television networks,” the newspaper reports. “But the growth of the Latino population comes more and more from people born in the U.S. who speak English and watch the main television networks, not just the Spanish-speaking ones.”