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The secrets of Univision’s success

Univision produces none it its own prime-time programming. None. Instead,
the media giant imports all of its blockbuster shows from Mexican television
mega-producer Televisa, whose popular programs are the exclusive right of
Univision until 2017.

Year after year, Televisa, which is the world’s largest producer of
television content, provides Univision with as close a thing as there is to
a guaranteed hit in the fickle world of television.

First, Televisa tapes and broadcasts its programs in Mexico. Then, a few
months later, after the 100 million-strong Mexican market has sorted out the
season’s winners and losers, Univision books its prime time lineup.
Of course, that lineup only includes the biggest successes south of the
border.

One Univision executive gleefully describes it as “exactly the reverse of
the typical television model”–with all the benefits, but none of the costs.

Alex Saragoza, a professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, says that
Univision’s relationship with Televisa is “hugely important.”

“It gives them an inside track,” says Saragoza. “They can pick and choose
the most popular shows; it reinforces the dominance of Univision.”

Because of its unique partnership with Televisa, Univision does not spend
valuable resources on losing ventures (i.e. failed pilots) and rarely wastes
invaluable prime time television real estate on a ratings bust. For its
programming, Televisa, which is one of the largest shareholders in
Univision, is compensated 15 percent the net time sales of Univision, less
certain costs. Under the agreement, which was first signed in 1992 and
expires in 2017, Televisa agrees to provide “at least” 8,531 hours of
quality programming to Univision every year.

And no programming is near as popular among Spanish-language television
watchers as Televisa’s. Televisa specializes in creating telenovelas,
Mexican soap operas that, like their U.S. counterparts, air daily, but
unlike American soaps, novelas have only a limited lifespan.

Five nights a week, Univision fills its prime time lineup with such novelas.
“If you are an ER junkie, you are an ER junkie every Thursday,” said the
Univision executive. “If you are an Amor Real (the name of a recent
Univision hit) junkie, you are an Amor Real junkie every day of the week.”

Even Univision’s competition admits that the quality of Televisa’s novelas
is unmatched.

“Televisa has been doing novelas for as long as TV has existed,” said Manuel
Abud, general manager at Telemundo, Univision’s chief broadcast rival, in
Los Angeles. “They have really mastered the art.”
Indeed, Televisa’s shows are distributed and dubbed across the globe, from
the Russia to China to Africa. The simple and classic plot lines are often
dotted with the cross-cultural themes of intrigue, death, love and
mortality.

Though successful everywhere, the plots tend to resonate particularly well
with Mexican-American immigrants. The novelas, as Saragoza put it, serve as
“a bridge across the border.” Mexicans, says Saragoza grow up with Televisa
telenovelas and when they immigrate they bring those television preferences
with them.

Telemundo, the nation’s number two Spanish-language network, which was
bought by NBC in 2002 for $2.7 billion, has, in many ways resigned itself to
targeting second-generation U.S. Hispanics. Alfredo Richard, a Telemundo
spokesman, says immigrants have “Televisa in their genes.”

“What it cannot do is capture the experience of immigrants after they have
come to this country,” says Richard. Telemundo is targeting that audience,
with some success, by writing novelas themed around issues “currently facing
U.S. Hispanics,” like immigration and healthcare.

Telemundo produces all of its own prime time programming, giving the
company, as Richard put it, “control of its own destiny.” And looking ahead
to 2017, when “all the information we have is that [Univision-Televisa]
contract is going to end,” Telemundo will have 14 years of novela production
experience.

Nearly every Spanish-language television observer sees 2017 as a watershed
year, “a turning point for industry,” according to Richard.

Univision currently produces just shy of 50 percent of its own content (36
percent came from Televisa in 2004, with another 17 percent from Venevision,
which has a similar contract to Televisa’s). But Televisa telenovelas remain
the network’s bread and butter programming.

Univision’s other popular shows include S


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