On a recent Thursday afternoon inside the cavernous Telemundo Studios in Medley, director Luis Manzo yells, “Action!” A handsome young man (played by Mexican heartthrob Eugenio Siller) is visiting a sickly woman (Laura Flores, the Mexican actress and singer) in a hospital room. A crew of more than a dozen people — camera operators, grips, makeup artists — looks on as the short scene is played out. The entire thing takes 15 minutes. Then Manzo says, “Cut!” and the crew moves on the next set.
The scene will be part of ¿Quién es quién? (Who is Who?), a romantic comedy about two twin brothers, one rich and one poor, who switch identities in order to resolve each other’s problems. Naturally, complications ensue — probably a new one every episode, to be sure you’ll tune back in the following night.
When ¿Quién es quién? premieres on Telemundo early next year, it will be the latest volley in NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises’ ongoing mission to gain ground on its rival Univision, which has the largest audience of Spanish-language TV viewers in the world. This summer, Telemundo ran a full-page ad in The New York Times crowing about its latest success: narrowing its prime-time ratings gap with Univision from 1.2 million viewers in July 2013 to 238,000 in July 2015. For the week of July 20-24, the difference between the two networks was only 40,000 viewers.
Telemundo is drawing bigger audiences through a multi-platform approach:
▪ Telenovelas and “super series,” or ongoing telenovelas with fewer episodes, higher production values and new seasons each year, focusing on themes beyond the traditional romantic soap opera. New elements include drug dealers, immigration, humor and biography.
▪ An aggressive approach to TV news with an emphasis on breaking stories and reports of particular interest to U.S. Hispanics from regions such as Venezuela and Mexico.
▪ Reality TV shows geared to Hispanics, such as La Voz Kids, a talent competition patterned after NBC’s smash hit The Voice but focusing on child performers.
▪ Sports, including exclusive Spanish-language TV rights to air the 2016 Summer Olympics and the FIFA World Cup competitions through 2026, previously held by Univision.
▪ Community outreach, including telethons and problem-solving hot lines for viewers.
“We’re living in a fascinating time in our country’s history,” says Cesar Conde, the newly appointed chairman of NBCUniversal International Group and NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises. “The issues that matter most to Latinos are at the center of our country’s political debate right now, and they have ramifications that are economic, cultural, social and political. We’re going to see this play out in the 2016 election cycle.
“That also opens up a huge business opportunity for media companies targeting Hispanics,” says Conde, a Miami native. “Our community is evolving and changing, and we have to take that into account. There is a tectonic shift taking place in Hispanic media right now. Latinos are increasingly choosing Telemundo as their preferred home for Spanish language news, sports and entertainment, as well as the place to empower themselves and their families.”
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, a record 33.2 million Hispanics in the U.S. — 68 percent of all Hispanics ages 5 and up — speak English proficiently. But the same study found a record 35.8 million Hispanics still speak Spanish at home. And as the total Hispanic population grows, so does the number of Spanish speakers — making the potential audience for Spanish-language television larger than ever.
Since its launch in 1987, Telemundo has lived under the shadow of its rival Univision, which has the largest audience of Spanish-language television viewers in the world. But after its sale to NBC (which later became NBC/Universal) in 2002 for $2.7 billion, and then NBCUniversal’s acquisition by Comcast in 2013 for $16.7 billion, the network was infused with cash and resources.
Instead of having to purchase original programming from production companies in Mexico and Latin America, Telemundo started making its own — and they have caught on. This summer, the network notched its highest August ratings ever, averaging 843,000 adults aged 18-49 and 387,000 adults aged 18-34 in Monday-to-Friday prime time. That narrowed the gap with Univision to its smallest number ever, of only 124,000 and 29,000 fewer viewers, respectively.
In April, the third season premiere of El Señor de los Cielos (Lord of the Skies), Telemundo’s runaway hit about a powerful drug dealer (played by Rafael Amaya), set a new record as the highest rated premiere in the network’s history, averaging 2,681,000 total viewers and 1,760,000 adults aged 18-49, even beating English-language networks CBS and ABC.
Reinventing the telenovela
El Señor de los Cielos, which airs at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and launches its fourth season in April 2016, has been Telemundo’s most successful example of its “super series” model, conceived to remove the one stigma that had long haunted telenovelas as programs only your grandparents watched. Telemundo’s latest entry into the field, the musical Celia Cruz biopic Celia, premiered at 8 p.m. Oct. 14 to a cumulative audience of 2,375,000 total viewers and 926,000 adults 18-49, according to Nielsen. In Miami, it was the most watched program of any network, regardless of language.
“Novelas have an average of 120 episodes with a beginning, a middle and an end and that’s it,” says Manuel Martinez, president of Telemundo Station Group, which serves Spanish-speaking viewers via 17 stations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago. “Super series are shorter and you don’t close the story. If you liked the first season, you’ll come back for the second. And because it airs Monday-Friday, it’s not appointment television, like weekly English-language series. They end with a cliffhanger, so you have to tune in tomorrow to find out what’s happening and not get left behind.”
“The telenovela tradition is the melodrama, the poor girl in love with the wealthy guy,” says Luis Silberwasser, president of Telemundo network. “I’m not discounting those. They are valid stories and they’ve been popular for a long time. But when you change your mind-set and say ‘OK, let’s try to get the U.S. Hispanic audience,’ the whole world open in terms of storylines. We’ve changed the genres we’re playing with. Super series like El Señor de los Cielos, are more action-oriented, edgier, grittier and based on current headlines. They’re drawing a lot of young viewers. We can’t pretend Game of Thrones and The Sopranos don’t exist. Sticking solely to melodramas is not right. Audiences love morally complex characters. And now with Celia, we’re doing something new, a musical biography about a singer who is beloved by all Hispanics.”
Silberwasser also stresses the importance of home-grown programming versus purchasing shows produced in Latin America.
“We produce in Miami and Mexico, but the scripts, language, thinking and concepts are all geared toward people who live in the U.S.,” he says. “That drives what our programming strategy is about — to find stories that resonate with our viewers in New York, Miami, San Francisco, Houston and L.A., not the people who live in other countries. El Señor de los Cielos is the story of a man who comes from humble beginnings and becomes a Mexican drug lord. Why is it relevant? Not because we live that story, but because it’s in the news every day. It’s the kind of story we are all familiar with.”
The super-series concept allows Telemundo to negotiate advertising rates because they are selling a proven show instead of a new one (the third year of El Señor de los Cielos enjoyed the highest ratings of any season thus far). According to Kantar Media, the amount of advertising dollars spent on Spanish television in the U.S. climbed from $6281.1 million in 2013 to $7,206.7 million in 2014, an increase of 14.7 percent (overall TV ad spending in 2014, including network, cable and syndication, was $78,130 million).
The super-series model was an extension of that same line of thinking — updating and rethinking the long-standing telenovela format for U.S. audiences while maintaining the daily connection fans have with their favorite soaps.
In terms of quality, Telemundo’s programs are radically superior to what came before because they are made with a U.S. audience in mind.
“It’s a breath of fresh air to see someone doing something original in the Latin market,” says Miguel Sarmiento, an independent news analyst and former Spanish online supervisor for The Associated Press. “This hadn’t happened in a while. The previous generation of Spanish-language TV appealed to the lowest common denominator. They played into the media’s idea of what would sell to Hispanics, which was machista, xenophobic and anti-feminist. I hope their new normal will continue to respect to women and minorities and stop referring to Americans as gringos. Telemundo is doing the right thing: Developing a good brand with original content. You have to respect your audience and talk to them if you want them to talk to you. That’s the golden rule of media.”
Manuel Ballagas, a Hispanic media consultant and former editor for El Nuevo Herald and The Wall Street Journal Americas, says Telemundo’s perception of its audience matches the increasing multitude of cultures and colors that make up the “U.S. Hispanic” demographic.
“There’s no way of grouping millions of people of different national origins and cultures just because they happen to have immigrated to the United States at some point and happen to speak varying shades of Castillian,” Ballagas says. “The ‘Hispanic audience’ is composed of Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans and Caribbean Americans, all with their own informational needs, tastes and entertainment preferences.
“While Univision addresses an audience that’s mostly Spanish language-dependent and — perhaps most important — overwhelmingly Mexican, Telemundo seems to have its cross hairs on a more assimilated, mostly bilingual and strikingly diverse audience. Most importantly, Telemundo has dramatically altered the usual set of all-Caucasian characters by including Latin American blacks in the recent series about the life of the late Cuban singer Celia Cruz. These new approaches have helped push Telemundo forward in the ratings.”
Emphasis on local news
Filmed programming is only one part of Telemundo’s arsenal. In 2014, thanks to a “significant” investment by NBCUniversal, the Telemundo Station Group was able to debut snazzy new state-of-the-art sets in 11 markets (including the Telemundo 51 WSCV station in Miramar), hire more than 160 new employees, launch a daily 5:30 p.m. newscast and add nine Telemundo Responde (Telemundo Responds) consumer investigative units to address issues called in by viewers to a control center in Dallas, from a shady auto mechanic who didn’t perform the promised repairs to a tax agency that cheated clients out of their returns. Thus far, the unit has recovered more than $3.5 million for consumers.
Other ongoing local-centric shows include the daily 10 a.m. newsmagazine Acceso Total, an entertainment show that showcases South Florida talent, and Telemundo’s annual telethon to benefit the Miami-based nonprofit Liga Contra el Cáncer (League Against Cancer), which generates the bulk of the organization’s yearly operating budget.
“We want to make sure we are the stations of the community,” Martinez says. “We want to be the station that breaks news and covers weather for our audience. We have a specific relationship with our audience, because if you’re not 100 percent fluent in English, you come to us every day for your entertainment and information. NBCUniversal believes in the power of the stations and local television. They are giving us the tools to be competitive. There’s only so much you can do with creativity. You also need the resources.”
Ten Telemundo-owned stations (including Miramar) also share news and information with their sister NBC-owned station. The duopolies allow the two station groups to pool resources and staffing, with bilingual journalists occasionally delivering on-camera reports for both stations. The result? Telemundo 51’s 11 p.m. newscast has bested Univision in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos for the past 30 consecutive months.
“Our strategy is spot news and to report live from as many places as we can,” says Jorge Carballo, president and general manager of Telemundo 51 Miami WSCV. “On a normal day we have three or four reporters out in the field. We converted photographers’ trucks to mobile units so they can broadcast live. We cover more news than anybody in this market, probably with the exception of WSVN. That’s the secret to our success, live breaking news wherever it happens.”
Carballo, who began his career decades ago selling cable TV door-to-door, still remembers the days when Telemundo was seen as the David to Univision’s Goliath.
“I remember being at a focus group and when Telemundo came up, the people there said, ‘Those poor guys. They are trying really hard but they don’t have any money,’ ” Carballo says, smiling. “I laughed, because it was true. But with NBCUniversal igniting us with dollars and the duopolies, this is now the ideal place to be.”
Closing the ratings gap
The numbers back him up. In prime time (7-11 p.m.), Telemundo 51 was the most watched station in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market among adults 18 to 49 (2.8 rating) and adults 25 to 54 (3.4 rating). According to data provided by Nielsen, Univision averaged 2,900,000 viewers versus Telemundo’s 1,200,000 in prime time during a four-week period in September/October of 2014. During the same period in 2015, Univision’s viewers dropped to 2,290,000 while Telemundo's rose to 1,450,000, closing the gap by half.
On Facebook, the Telemundo page has a whopping 6.8 million likes. Already up and running is TeleXitos, a cable channel which broadcasts hit network TV shows (Miami Vice, Law & Order, Homicide) dubbed in Spanish. To fill the void left by Sabado Gigante, the hugely popular variety show that aired for 53 seasons and ended in September, Telemundo is unveiling its own family-friendly variety show, ¡Qué Noche! premiering on Nov. 7. A Spanish-language version of Big Brother, the long-running CBS reality show about strangers living in a house filled with cameras, will premiere in 2016.
And Conde promises Telemundo’s growth is just getting started.
“NBCUniversal believes in the potential of Telemundo Enterprises,” Conde says. “We have already made considerable investments and will continue to show our commitment, not only to the core business, but also to the long term future of Telemundo Enterprises in South Florida.”
Telemundo at a glance
WHAT: NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, comprised of six branches:
▪ Telemundo, a Spanish-language television network reaching 94 percent of Hispanic TV households with scripted and non-scripted productions, films, specials, news and sports;
▪ Telemundo Station Group, 17 owned stations (including Telemundo 51 Miami/WSCV) and 52 broadcast and cable affiliates in 210 markets in the U.S. and Puerto Rico;
▪ Telemundo Studios, the leading producer of original Spanish-language prime-time content in the U.S., based in Hialeah;
▪ NBC Universo, a modern general entertainment cable channel for Latinos offering sports, signature series, music and strategic acquisitions, on TV, online and mobile devices;
▪ Telemundo International, the second largest distributor of Spanish-language content in the world, reaching more than 120 countries in over 40 languages;
▪ Digital Media unit, which creates and distributes original content across digital and emerging platforms including mobile devices and apps.
▪ Telemundo Network, Hialeah
▪ Telemundo 51, Miramar
▪ Telemundo Studios, Medley
▪ NBC Universo, Miami Springs
▪ Telemundo International, Coral Gables
▪ Total in South Florida: 1,300
▪ Approximately 400,000 square feet in studios and offices
ECONOMICALLY IMPACTED LOCAL INDUSTRIES
▪ Filmed entertainment, live news and variety shows, TV production, set construction, set design, wardrobe, talent agencies, music producers, equipment and location rentals, travel agencies