When news broke one morning in January that Univision, the largest Spanish-language TV network in the world, had acquired a majority stake in The Onion, many who glanced at the headline assumed it was just another of the popular website’s satirical essays.
But anyone who had been paying attention to what Univision Communications Inc. (UCI) had been doing over the past two years knew the news was no joke. Since launching the English-language TV network and website Fusion in 2013 as a joint venture with Disney ABC, Univision has moved beyond its traditional Spanish-speaking core audience, aggressively courting millennials of all cultures and ethnicities.
In April, Univision bought out Disney’s 50 percent stake in Fusion, taking over distribution and ad sales rights for the network. Univision, which owns 59 television stations, 67 radio stations, 11 cable brands and multiple websites in the U.S., is in the process of preparing an initial public offering.
Fusion is still a fairly young brand
Isaac Lee, chief news, entertainment and digital officer of Univision Communications
After experimenting with sports, talk shows and comedies, Fusion has been retooled to focus primarily on politics, investigative journalism and social commentary — the issues that are of primary importance to its target 18-34 demographic. The company more than doubled its revenues from 2014 to 2015, from $28.1 million to $63.5 million, while steadying its losses, $35 million in 2014 and $37.6 million in 2015.
Fusion is also now the anchor of the Fusion Media Group, Univision’s ambitious multiplatform endeavor launched in April that includes The Onion, the African-American news site The Root, the pop-culture obsessive The AV Club, the music-oriented The Flama and other popular online destinations. The intent is to supplant Fusion’s current TV offerings with programming produced in conjunction with the portfolio’s other entities — all of which have established a broad reach with Fusion’s target demographic.
“Fusion’s core mission has remained consistent: to deliver news to the new America — to serve a young, diverse audience with content that informs, provokes and entertains,” said Isaac Lee, chief news, entertainment and digital officer for Univision. “I think the team is executing on that mission better now than we were two years ago — and we will be even better at it a year or two from now.
“Fusion is still a fairly young brand, and I know it will continue to grow as we focus on covering stories and issues that matter to the rising American mainstream — one that is more diverse and inclusive than previous generations.”
So far, the numbers prove Lee right. According to the media measurement/analytics tracker Comscore, Fusion Media Group drew 36.5 million unique visitors in May 2016 — more than five times the 7 million visitors Univision reached across all of its digital platforms in January 2015.
Over the past year, Fusion’s main Facebook page has gone from 245,000 likes to nearly 1,074,000. Its three Twitter feeds have gained more than 100,000 followers in the same period, with a current total of more than 400,000.
65.6 million number of unique visitors to Fusion Media Group in May 2016
Driven by coverage of the presidential campaign and breaking news stories, traffic to fusion.net has gone up 282 percent in the past 12 months, to a current 12 million unique visitors.
Including traffic from The Onion’s popular network of news and entertainment sites, the Fusion Media Group attracted a total of 65.6 million unique visitors in May 2016 — a 492 percent increase from May 2015.
“The Onion has been around for nearly 28 years,” said Mike McAvoy, president and chief executive of Onion, Inc. “Univision has been around for 60 years. Fusion launched less than three years ago. They have continued to evolve, and I think over the past year have furthered defined their voice.
“It’s always challenging for brands to build both a digital operation and program a cable network, but I think they are balancing those two different businesses well and really appreciate the fact they are always looking at ways to experiment and try different things,” McAvoy said. “Experimentation is key in this media environment. For The Onion specifically, we appreciate how much they value the power of comedy and satire. It provides an opportunity for the Onion to add value to something that we’re both passionate about.”
Because of its pending IPO offering, Univision executives declined to reveal how much they paid for a majority stake in The Onion and ownership of the other sites in the Fusion Media Group portfolio. But Boris Gartner, co-president and chief operating officer of Fusion, says the recent acquisitions are a natural step in the development of the network that launched in 2013.
“This is the evolution of the foundation we’ve been working on for the last three years,” he said. “The Onion news was a head-scratcher for a lot of people. But the real story is when we started researching our audience, comedy was always the thing that kept popping up. It’s the most powerful currency for young people.”
Another good fit was The Root, the news site launched in 2008 that presents news from an African-American perspective and has showcased the work of esteemed writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melissa Harris Perry and Marc Lamont Hill.
“Univision launched Fusion because it saw the face of the country was changing,” said Donna Byrd, vice president and publisher of The Root. “If Fusion’s aim is to serve a young, diverse, inclusive America, adding The Root’s voice to the mix made a lot of sense. Fusion has a very diverse staff on its own, but The Root gives it additional authority and perspective when it comes to serving young African Americans.”
Byrd says that since Univision’s acquisition of The Root, the site has seen a 552 percent increase in video views, while the staff has grown from 12 to 16. Among the hires was political editor Jason Johnson, who is contributing to Fusion’s convention coverage in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
Fusion’s increased emphasis on staff diversity is a reflection of the growing number of Hispanics and other minorities within the U.S. population, which is expected to reach 77 million by 2030.
“What gives way to the Fusion Media Group is in many ways the same thing that gave way to Univision 50 or 60 years ago,” said Daniel Eilemberg, co-president and chief content officer of Fusion. “The genius of Univision was identifying a demographic trend before anyone else. They realized there was a Spanish-language community in the U.S. and there was no media serving that community. It was smart to bet on the growth of that community. I don’t know if they could have foreseen the size and level of influence Hispanics would develop, but they were right.
“What you’re seeing now is a similar kind of bet on the future of the demographics of this country,” he said. “We are seeing a seismic shift in this country. Minorities will become the majority in the none-too-distant future. We’re betting on that audience, which is not currently well represented on mainstream media today.”
Both The Onion and The Root are batting ideas around with Fusion executives for possible TV or online shows. The move would follow the national trend of established online platforms migrating to the cable TV landscape, such as Vice, which airs a weekly show on HBO, and Vox, which has started production on a series for A&E.
Being part of the Fusion Media Group means that instead of having to shop ideas around to various networks, subsidiary websites can test ideas with audiences on an existing network that reaches 40 million U.S. homes.
“Two years ago, all the digital brands were dismissing television,” Gartner said about the criticism Fusion has received. ‘Nobody’s watching! Why would you have a TV network?’
“But companies have been changing [critics’] minds over the last year,” he said. “They’re all trying to expand to TV now. We’re in a good place: We have an amazing collection of digital brands, and we have a cable network with decent distribution that allows us to take their followings to TV. If the AV Club has an existing anchor sponsor, and all of a sudden we can offer them a TV show, as well, that’s a great business opportunity.
“That access and the fluidity of the platforms is a huge advantage. That makes the difference between having a partnership with a collection of disparate brands and a cohesive portfolio that can leverage audience, sales, scale, you name it.”
INVESTMENT OF RESOURCES
Telemundo, Univision’s chief rival, has also gotten into the English-language digital game. In May, the network announced new partnerships with online giants Buzzfeed and Vox, made possible by $200 million investments by its parent company NBC/Universal.
But with Fusion, Univision has the ability to produce original TV and online video content quickly, working directly with the digital properties they either own outright or control a majority stake, as with the 40 percent share of The Onion.
You’re going to see a lot of things coming from us that will be surprising
Daniel Eilemberg, chief content officer of Fusion
And Univision’s courtship of bilingual Hispanics who prefer English extends beyond the Fusion Media Group. In June, former Nieman fellow Borja Echevarría, vice president and editor-in-chief of Univision Digital, presided over the launch of Univision News, an English-language section within the main Univision site.
Based in Miami, the publication provides coverage of domestic and international news with a Latino perspective.
“Univision has an experimental way of thinking,” he said. “We try things, and if they don’t work we move on and try something else. Univision has invested a lot of resources in building a big team of journalists. Since last year, we’ve hired close to 50 journalists for the digital news side, to elevate the quality of our content and do more real journalism online.”
Part of that investment was trying something in English.
“With this team, we are doing a lot of stories no one else is doing,” Echevarría said. “Univision’s main target is still Spanish language, and that’s where we put all of our efforts. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to expand our coverage.”
Mark Lopez, executive vice president and general manager of Univision Digital, says the company’s expansion into the English-language market is a natural consequence of the preponderance of internet and wifi access. According to a Dec. 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of homes in the U.S. had broadband connections and 68 percent of Americans own a smartphone.
“15 years ago, the internet ecosystem was based on dial-up connections,” he said. “Back then, standard TV was the main gateway to consume content, especially video. But audiences have changed dramatically, and so have we.
“When you look at our portfolio of companies, we have a core Univision business, with tremendous high-quality Spanish programming, and then you have other properties that are consumed via social networks and YouTube. We’re not losing focus on Spanish-language content, which is our core business. These are just additive opportunities to reach the consumer wherever they are.
“The TV industry today is very good business, but it’s not growing as fast as the digital platforms,” he said. “When you see that audiences consume 15 hours of media every day — some people spend more — you have to find out what they’re spending that time on and who is providing the content. Whoever can develop a brand — or align with brands — to take a major share of that consumption time is going to be the winner long-term. That’s what we’re focused on with the Fusion Media Group and Univision Digital.”
Fusion currently has a staff of nearly 300 full-time employees spread out over four offices in Miami, Oakland, New York and Los Angeles. Its television slate includes the popular “The Chris Gethard Show,” which has received critical acclaim and landed big-name guests, and investigative documentaries and series such as “Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children,” which just received a News and Documentary Emmy Award nomination.
Although the network’s online headquarters fusion.net was criticized at its outset for lacking a uniting vision or tonal focus, the redesigned site now sports a sharp combination of hard news and pop culture commentary with stories that cover real-world issues from perspectives of interest to multicultural millennial audiences, such as a report about Hillary Clinton taking to Snapchat to blast Chris Christie, using Craigslist to go Pokémon hunting, a profile of a young British artist who drew on the Ferguson shooting for inspiration, and a report on a women’s group in Havana fighting culturally ingrained racism on the island.
“One thing people forget is at the beginning of 2015, Fusion barely had a website,” said Alexis Madrigal, a former writer for Wired and The Atlantic who was named Fusion editor-in-chief in May 2015 and has played a critical role in revamping the main site. “There was a lot of pressure on Fusion to produce very quickly. In a start-up situation, you have no lineage to lean on or define what you are. That forced us to define ourselves internally. Anyone who works here now can tell you if a certain story is for Fusion or not. Over the last six months, we’ve learned what kinds of stories resonate with our audience.”
Madrigal says the website, like the rest of Fusion, is still a work in progress. Early July brought the debut of TrackRecord, a new English-language music site that covers the form from a socially conscious and cross-demographic perspective. The “Real Future” section of the Fusion site, which focuses on technology and ideas, is about to be spun off into a standalone entity.
Coming in November is “Mars 2030,” an ambitious collaboration between Fusion, NASA and MIT that will deliver a full virtual-reality experience, using the mechanics and architecture of a video game, that will rely on hard scientific data to envision life inside a habitat on the surface of Mars.
”You’re going to see a lot of things coming from us that will be surprising,” Eilemberg said. “These are not things people tend to associate with the Univision brand.
“We’re going through a period in media in which companies are appealing to specific niches. But we think of what we are doing as building passion points and hitting the common threads that unite people in their 20s and 30s. Super-serving the new American mainstream. We’re no longer building a company for the niche Hispanic audience. We’re building a media company for the new American mainstream.”
At a glance
What: Fusion Media Group, multi-platform endeavor owned by Univision Communications Inc. that includes Fusion, The Onion, The AV Club, The Root, Clickhole, Starwipe, The Flama and El Rey Network
Where: Fusion has a staff of 300 and is headquartered in Doral, FL., with other offices in New York, Los Angeles and Oakland
Social media reach: 1,074,000 on Facebook; more than 400,000 on Twitter; 111,000 on Instagram; 122,000 on YouTube
TV reach: Nearly 40 million homes in the U.S.
2014 revenue: $28.1 million
2015 revenue: $63.5 million
Head of Fusion Media Group: Isaac Lee, chief news, entertainment and digital officer of Univision