EL TIGRE : Broadcasting Baron Emilio Azcarraga Monopolizes Mexican Culture and Controls the News. Now He’s Stalking the U.S.
DRESSED IN THEIR FINEST dark suits, 200 of Mexico’s grandest entrepreneurs gathered in Monterrey last year to question President Bush and top U.S. trade officials about American protectionism. They were the captains of Mexico’s steel and cement industries, leaders of immense financial empires-- real Mexican money assembled at the exclusive Casino Monterrey in a room draped with crystal chandeliers that nearly trembled amid so much power and privilege.
And yet, even in this group of titans, one businessman stood out with the blunt, self-assured way in which he spoke to U.S. officials. Tall, broad-faced, with a dramatic shock of white through his dark hair, Mexico’s leading media magnate rose to address U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Labor Robert A. Mosbacher.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 10, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 10, 1991 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Maxwell--In the article “El Tigre” in today’s Los Angeles Times Magazine, there is a reference to British media baron Robert Maxwell. The magazine was printed before Maxwell’s death last week.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 15, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 7 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
In “El Tigre” (Nov. 10), there was an incorrect reference to the late Reynold V. Anselmo. Anselmo is still living. Also, Channel 22 in Los Angeles was incorrectly described as a former cable station.
“I am Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, a communications entrepreneur, and my company is Televisa,” he said in a booming voice. “For many years, we have enjoyed a special kind of free market in television transmission between the United States and Mexico, importing and exporting signals by satellite.” However, he added, foreigners are not allowed to control stations in the United States.
“We were asked to leave the United States a couple of years ago. Now, we want to return. Will you be negotiating the structure of television-license ownership in the United States?” he asked.
This was straight talk from a Mexican businessman. You want a free-trade agreement, he was telling U.S. officials, put your money where your mouth is. Open your borders. Let us buy American television stations.
In the big league of media barons, Azcarraga is right up there with Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. With a near-monopoly on broadcast television and a corner on the cable market, he is arguably as powerful in Mexico today as William Randolph Hearst was at the peak of his sensationalist American print empire. Azcarraga’s $2-billion company--the world’s largest producer and exporter of programming--makes and breaks Latin American television stars, controlling its actors just as the big Hollywood studios did in their heyday. Azcarraga’s power extends well beyond the entertainment industry. He is an unwavering ally of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Mexico’s system of one-party rule. Televisa is so close to the government that it is sometimes snidely referred to as the Ministry of Communications. With its vast reach and resources, the company virtually defines what is news in Mexico and, just as important, what is not.
“Imagine if ABC, CBS and NBC were one company,” says Mexico media critic Raul Trejo Delarbre. “That is what Televisa has been in Mexico. Lack of competition has permitted the great political and cultural influence of Televisa.”
Unrestrained, the giant flourished under the country’s old closed economy. But times are changing in Mexico. Salinas is opening the door to outsiders. Ironically, the very free-trade agreement that Azcarraga seeks to make his way back into U.S. Spanish-language television could also introduce real competition for him at home. In anticipation of this, Azcarraga is streamlining his business and plans to put the privately held Televisa on the stock market for the first time later this month.
But some businessmen and media observers believe he is unprepared for the challenge. Azcarraga’s autocratic style is hardly compatible with competition and the openness required of a public company, they say. Would-be competitors point to disasters Azcarraga has wrought when trying to operate in the United States, where he does not enjoy cozy government relations and a home-court advantage.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Azcarraga built up a profitable 12-station Spanish-language network in the United States. But he was forced to sell in 1986 after the U.S. government accused him of illegally controlling the stations--a violation of foreign-ownership laws. Azcarraga’s interests in four stations were distributed among his U.S. partners; the $600 million that Hallmark paid him for the remaining eight stations and the network, plus continuing fees for programming, helped finance his other U.S. ventures. Last year, without so much as a market study, Azcarraga launched the National, the only nationwide sports daily in the United States. The paper folded in June after hemorrhaging $100 million. But as he indicated to Mosbacher, Azcarraga has not given up. He spends half his time in Los Angeles and New York, overseeing his U.S. business interests.
When it comes to his private life, Azcarraga is more of a Howard Hughes than a Murdoch or Maxwell. Public appearances like the one in Monterrey last November are rare. He is a media mogul who shuns the press, and, consequently, little is known about him. Even his age is such a well-kept secret that when his nephew, Televisa vice president Emilio Diez Barroso, is asked about it, he blushes and stutters as if he has been queried on his mother’s sex life.
Azcarraga mythology has filled the information void. Mexicans in the know love to gossip about his yachts and paintings, his four marriages, his much-discussed vanity and obsession with youth. Friends describe Azcarraga as charismatic and generous, the benevolent patron of the hacienda. Others who do not necessarily mean to be unflattering describe him as autocratic and despotic. This is, after all, a culture that appreciates a strongman. Azcarraga’s public nickname is el Tigre --the Tiger.
Many speak of him with a great deal of fear, which his family dismisses as perfectly natural. “When a man is important, people are afraid of him,” says another nephew and vice president, Alejandro Burillo. “Emilio is an important man in this country.”
Few would argue that. His network is a unifying if not always edifying force in a diverse country that has three times as many television sets as telephones. Farmers in remote mountain villages gather around the community television to watch the same soap operas, comedies and variety shows viewed in the living rooms of downtown Mexico City. When the government launched a birth-control program in the mid-1970s, Televisa debuted a soap opera, “Accompany Me,” that encouraged its predominantly Catholic audience to engage in family planning. Contraceptive sales increased significantly during the months the program aired.
Mexican popular culture has long been shaped by the Azcarraga family. Azcarraga’s father, also named Emilio, started the empire with a chain of radio stations. He introduced trumpets into the classic Mexican mariachi band in the 1930s so that the music would sound livelier on radio broadcasts. Today, a mariachi without horns isn’t a mariachi.
Televisa owns two of the country’s top soccer teams and made soccer the No. 1 sport on television until last year. Following a dispute with the Mexican Soccer Federation, the company stopped broadcasting all games except those of its own teams and promoted bullfighting as Mexico’s national pastime. Most of its sportscasts now begin with reports on bullfighting, usually at Mexico City’s Plaza de Toros--operated by Televisa.
Azcarraga has brought high-brow culture to the middle and upper classes. Televisa stations promote exhibits--from Calder to Frida Kahlo--at the company-owned Cultural Center for Contemporary Art and provide a forum for intellectuals. Not everyone has equal access to Televisa microphones, however. Azcarraga’s friend, Nobel laureate poet Octavio Paz, is routinely promoted, while the renowned leftist writer Carlos Fuentes seldom is seen.
And Azcarraga tries to define Mexican culture for the rest of the world as well. His ECO news programs are broadcast on Spanish-language television in the United States, Europe and Latin America, as are Televisa-made entertainment shows, especially soap operas. He is sponsoring the lavish traveling art exhibit “Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries,” which opened, with Azcarraga and President Salinas in attendance, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Sept. 29. The 400-piece exhibit, running until Dec. 29, is the most comprehensive collection of ancient, colonial and modern Mexican art ever assembled in the United States.
Azcarraga formed the Los Angeles-based foundation, Friends of the Arts of Mexico, to finance the multimillion-dollar show and was a major contributor. Not by accident, the show coincides with Salinas’ efforts to raise Mexico’s international profile and integrate the country into the world economy. Culture is one of Mexico’s strongest selling points, and Azcarraga is one of Mexico’s top salesmen. “They are trying to refute the negativism that characterizes the image of Mexico in the United States: drugs, corruption, electoral fraud,” says UC Berkeley historian Alex Saragoza, who has studied Televisa. “They sense the need to rehabilitate Mexico’s image, and who better to do it than Televisa?”
FRIENDS AND FAMILY LIKE TO PORTRAY THE MULTIMILlionaire as a regular guy who enjoys Chinese takeout on Sunset Boulevard as much as eating at the Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills, who shops at Tower Records, goes to movies and nibbles popcorn. Sure, Azcarraga flies to and from his Hollywood home in a private Grumann jet, owns a 180-foot, custom-designed yacht and decorates the walls of his Mexico City mansion with works by Picasso and David Hockney. His dinner wines run $500 a bottle. But he also occasionally rides the Mexico City subway--unheard of among the upper crust--or visits the outdoor Lagunilla market to mix with the masses. Azcarraga drives himself about town in an armored gray Mercedes-Benz without the security entourage that usually accompanies Mexico’s business elite.
Azcarraga is one of two Mexicans on Forbes magazine’s list of world billionaires, with an estimated personal wealth of $1 billion. There may be richer men in Mexico, but family fortunes are closely guarded secrets; Forbes deduced Azcarraga’s worth from documents required to prepare Televisa’s stock-market registration.
Friends tell stories of Azcarraga reaching into his pocket to help out a sick employee or a waiter in financial straits. The 80-year-old shoeshine man who used to polish the boots of Azcarraga’s father still calls the media mogul “little Emilio,” they say, and is the one person permitted to enter Azcarraga’s office without knocking. The only one.
More common are the stories about Azcarraga’s arrogance. A former producer recalls the time Azcarraga ordered all employees to wear a company badge at work, then fired a security guard who, recognizing the boss, allowed him into his own building without the badge.
Others recount the tale of Azcarraga’s oversize chair. The history of the giant wooden chair changes a bit with each telling, but the chair’s purpose is clear--to humiliate. Azcarraga’s father, the founder of Televisa, had the chair built so that a person sitting in it could not touch his feet to the floor. When Azcarraga inherited the leadership of the company, he also inherited the chair. “Someone comes to him with a complaint, he seats them in the chair and says, ‘It’s too big for you, isn’t it? When it isn’t too big for you, we’ll talk,’ ” says critic Trejo.
Some of those who know Azcarraga attribute his brusqueness to his relationship with his father. The senior Azcarraga, respectfully known as Don Emilio, was a street-wise, self-made millionaire who routinely referred to “my son, the idiot.” Azcarraga has spent much of his life trying to prove his father wrong, friends say.
Don Emilio, described by his grandchildren as a brash man with big hands that he used to clap acquaintances on the back, got his start as a salesman--first cigarettes, then shoes, then RCA Victor gramophones and radio ads. He married a woman from San Antonio, Texas, and, according to a family friend, the young Emilio was born in August, 1930, on the day that Don Emilio started up his first radio station, XEW--which would make Azcarraga 61.
During the 1940s, the senior Azcarraga built Churrubusco Studios, launching the golden age of Mexican cinema with stars Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Dolores del Rio. He also acquired one of the country’s first television channels. In 1954, the precursor of Televisa, Telesistema Mexicana, was formed when Azcarraga, along with newspaper publisher Romulo O’Farrill and inventor Guillermo Gonzalez Camarena, merged their three nationwide channels into one network. The family of late Mexican President Miguel Aleman later bought out Gonzalez’s interest; Azcarraga added a fourth channel and changed the company name to Televisa in 1973, shortly after his father died.
In an era when revolutionary generals ruled Mexico, Don Emilio wanted his only son to become a soldier and sent him to Culver Military Academy in Indiana. But the young Azcarraga never joined the military or even went to a university; he came home to the family business. The strapping youth enjoyed fancy cars and a privileged life, but that did not spare him from tragedy. His first wife, said to be his true love, died at 20. Azcarraga had four children by two more wives but lost a daughter in an automobile accident rumored to be a suicide. His only son, Emilio Azcarraga Jean, works for Televisa as vice president of programming.
Azcarraga’s fourth and current wife, Paula Cusi, a fashionable Mexican of Spanish descent, is said to be responsible for his interest and education in the arts. In her 40s, she is much younger than Azcarraga, part of what some consider his obsession with youth. “He is a grandfather, but he hates to be called that. He thinks it ages him,” says an acquaintance. “He is very vain,” says another. “He was very handsome, but he has had too many face lifts.”
Still, he is an imposing man who exudes power. Azcarraga inherited his father’s business acumen along with his share of three television channels and two radio stations. He turned the company into the multifaceted empire it is today: The corporation boasts 287 subsidiaries with 15,000 employees, and last year it earned $500 million in revenues. With its four popular national channels, Televisa dwarfs the nominal competition: two low-budget government stations, a university channel and a collection of local pay-TV stations. In addition, Televisa owns Cablevision, the nation’s top cable company; six of the country’s top radio stations, two record companies and a billboard advertising monopoly. The company makes movies and publishes books. Together, the Televisa companies rake in a phenomenal $4 out of every $5 spent on advertising in Mexico.
Last year, Azcarraga split with partners Romulo O’Farrill Jr. and Aleman, in part because of the National’s $100-million loss. Sources close to the company say Azcarraga took on the newspaper project alone, but when faced with heavy losses declared the National a Televisa venture. O’Farrill reportedly showed up with ready investors and told Azcarraga to buy him out or be bought. Azcarraga bought. O’Farrill took a French restaurant, three houses in the Caribbean resort of Cancun, four automobile dealerships, a plane, a yacht and a rumored $350 million for his third of the company.
Aleman passed his interest on to his son, but the reorganization increased the Azcarraga family’s ownership from more than a third to about 80%. Azcarraga and his sister, Laura, kept Televisa; the other sister, Carmela, took the Mexico City cable company Cablevision, which she recently sold back to Televisa. Looking ahead, Azcarraga has begun gearing up to enter 21st-Century businesses, from high-definition television to satellite telephones, and company officials have announced plans to raise $500 million by selling stock on the Mexico, New York, Tokyo and London exchanges.
“Televisa is going to change from a family-controlled company to a public company, and there will be some cultural clash,” says Hermann Von Bertrab, managing director of the San Diego-based Bertrab Mexican Report. “The records will be public, the numbers will be public, and they’ll have to be acceptable to a board of directors, which the Azcarraga family will still control, but there will probably be some foreigners on it. Right now, everything is decided by Azcarraga.” And he makes decisions quickly.
In Mexico’s overly polite business world, where most people say only what they believe others want to hear, Azcarraga says exactly what he thinks. “If you give him an idea, he tells you right away if he buys it or thinks it’s stupid,” says Agustin Barrios Gomez, who worked at Televisa for many years in reporting and administrative positions. “He never says, ‘Call me Monday.’ It’s either ‘Let’s do it,’ or ‘Go to hell.’ ”
The bottom line, says a high-level government official who knows Azcarraga well, is that “Emilio talks to officials like no one else does. And he knows how to recognize talent. He takes what is of use to him and throws out what is of no use to him. He rewards loyalty and efficiency and punishes disloyalty.”
AZCARRAga is very clear about his own loyalties. Mexico’s midterm elections for a new congress were important to President Salinas, who hoped they would be clean enough to demonstrate a commitment to democratic reforms while, at the same time, strengthening the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) majority in the legislature.
Three weeks before the Aug. 18 vote, a reporter cornered Azcarraga at the annual Guelaguetza cultural festival in Oaxaca, where he was a guest of the governor, to ask about Televisa’s biased campaign coverage. Azcarraga pulled no punches. “Televisa considers itself part of the government system and as such supports the campaigns of PRI candidates,” he said. “The president of the republic, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, is our maximum leader, and we are happy about that.” After the vote, Televisa reported the PRI’s sweeping victory in the federal elections but did not cover demonstrations in the states of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi, where the opposition charged that the ruling party stole the governors’ elections.
This alliance with the government has come under increasing criticism in recent years. After the 1988 presidential election, in which Televisa became an unofficial spokesman for Salinas, crowds protesting election fraud chanted “Death to Televisa.” The conservative National Action Party printed bumper stickers that read, “Don’t Watch Televisa. They Don’t Tell the Truth.”
Televisa serves the system, and the system serves Televisa. According to media expert Trejo, the government automatically renews Televisa’s licensing. Although Mexican law allows no more than eight minutes per hour of broadcast time for commercials, the Secretary of Communications and Transportation routinely grants Televisa permission for more, sometimes as much as 20 minutes in an hour, according to Trejo. While prime time in the United States is from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., Televisa calls prime time 6 p.m. to midnight and charges advertisers the higher rates for all six hours.
A law passed in the 1960s imposed a 25% tax on television earnings but allows Televisa to pay half its taxes with air time. Consequently, government ads are a common fixture on Televisa channels, in addition to the pro-government news coverage.
“The government and Televisa have an unwritten agreement to work together. But it isn’t a total identification. There are some frictions,” Trejo says. Azcarraga sought a cellular-telephone concession in Mexico, he says, and when the government didn’t give it to him last year, the “24 Hours” news show began attacking the Secretary of Communications and Transportation in retribution.
Such tensions rarely surface over politics, however, because Televisa’s view of the world is the same as the PRI’s. News is official news. There is little, if any, debate of public issues on the airwaves, says Florence Toussaint, who covers Televisa for the weekly magazine Proceso. “Televisa minimizes contrary political positions. The values are those which prevail--authoritarianism. I don’t think Televisa is proposing democracy. There is no attempt at objectivity. If they cover a march by teachers, it is about the traffic chaos they caused, not about their demands.”
In the case of a free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada--the centerpiece of Salinas’ economic policy--Televisa viewers would never know there are critics, who fear U.S. domination of Mexico’s economy.
The Televisa reporter who strays from the party line pays a heavy price. A few months after taking office, Salinas ordered the arrest of the reputedly corrupt boss of the oil-workers union, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, known as La Quina. The timing was perfect for Televisa newscaster Guillermo Ochoa, who had interviewed La Quina shortly before the arrest. But instead of getting kudos for the report, Ochoa was fired. Azcarraga and the government decided the interview was too sympathetic to the union leader.
Asked about the firing, Emilio Diez Barroso, Televisa vice president of news and sports, says, “Emilio Azcarraga wanted a certain political tone managed, and he (Ochoa) wasn’t in harmony with that tone.” The incident illustrates Azcarraga’s hands-on operation of the news department. Diez Barroso says that Azcarraga often presides over the Monday morning news meeting as well as over a Tuesday meeting for other programming.
Most of the Mexican media is managed by the government through a refined system of pressure, payoffs and self-censorship. With some notable exceptions, low-paid reporters receive “the envelope”: payments from the government ministries and agencies they cover. If the government wants an event to be played down--for example, the trampling death of 40 Ash Wednesday pilgrims in Chalma, Mexico, last February--a spokesman for the president or other ministries makes a call to editors. At Televisa, there is less need for pressure. “They are sensitive to the official line,” Toussaint says. “They perceive it and know it.”
Televisa’s solemn, bespectacled top anchorman for 30 years, Jacobo Zabludovsky, is considered by some to be the Walter Cronkite of Mexico. Others dismiss him as a hopeless pawn in an undemocratic political system. When two reporters arrived at his office for a scheduled interview, Zabludovsky, perspiring in a jacket decorated with a map of the world, said, “I don’t give interviews. I thought you wanted a tour of Televisa. What I have to say, I say on television.” He quickly ushered them out in favor of another appointment, promising to meet again the following day. Later, he called to cancel.
TELEVISA HAS MANAGED TO COMBINE ITS POLITICAL partisanship with traditional Mexican values of family, loyalty and hierarchy to create a commercial success. Even would-be competitors such as Ernesto Vargas, whose family owns an upstart pay-TV network called Multivision, give the corporation its due.
“Televisa is an excellent company, efficient. It has done television very well,” Vargas says. But he added that the techniques that serve Azcarraga in Mexico have not produced the same results in the United States. “Televisa is not prepared to compete. Where it has entered into competition, it has not done well.”
In contrast with U.S. television, where sponsors are courted, Mexican advertisers are at the mercy of Televisa. Either they buy a year of advertising in advance, before programming is even determined, or they pay triple the standard rate, taking a chance they will get no air time at all. Sponsors are not advised, much less consulted, if their commercials are moved from one show or time slot to another. “They are able to dictate terms,” says one advertising agency executive. “They changed the entire agency-client relationship, creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust.”
Entertainers have even less clout. Working for Televisa means working exclusively for Televisa. This is not stated in actors’ contracts, nor are they paid for exclusivity. But an appearance on one of the two government television stations or a role in somebody else’s soap opera incurs the Tiger’s wrath. The punishment is the veto , or blacklisting.
Maria Rubio speaks for many actors who have been blacklisted by Televisa. The 32-year Televisa veteran is best known for her role in “Wolf Cradle,” a hit soap opera. Over coffee on the patio of her condominium, which enjoys a view of Televisa’s southern Mexico City studios, the strawberry-blond actress recalls the incident that ended her career. After finishing “Wolf Cradle” four years ago, she accepted an offer for a 12-hour series on Puerto Rico’s Super-7 high-power channel.
“I knew I was gambling with my career,” she says. “My attitude was one of rebellion. I wanted to accept this opportunity. If all actors would do it, Televisa would have no choice but to accept things as they should be.”
Back in Mexico, Televisa’s doors were closed to her. Even theater managers said they could not cast her in plays because Televisa would then refuse their advertising. She was finished. “I look upon this as a divorce,” Rubio says. “I was married to Televisa for 32 years, and we had lots of children together--the shows I made. Now, the man does not love me any more. It’s over.”
Roberto Rivera, Los Angeles-based manager of the 13-member salsa band Banda Blanca, did not accept the veto so philosophically. The band cut short a tour in Chicago this summer to appear on Televisa’s popular Sunday variety show, “Siempre en Domingo.” But when they stepped off the plane in Mexico City, Rivera learned that their TV appearance had been canceled. Banda Blanca had appeared on an awards show in Miami sponsored by Billboard magazine and a U.S. Spanish-language network in May. The program aired on Imevision, Mexican government television, and an angry Azcarraga reportedly banned all the artists on the awards show from Televisa.
Rivera was incredulous. “International artists have a right to work. Why must we bow to Mr. Azcarraga? What’s going to happen when there’s a common market if they can’t accept competition? What happens if (a) Ted Turner comes in here?”
Faced with bad publicity over the issue, Miguel Aleman Magnani, Televisa vice president of corporate image, publicly denied that the artists were banned, and the company invited Banda Blanca to appear on another show, La Movida, in September. Officials also deny that the company keeps any kind of a blacklist, but former employees and competitors confirm its existence. “We have had to pay more to people who fear being banned by Televisa because they work with us,” says Vargas, the pay-TV network owner. “The fear costs us money.”
The government has announced plans to sell one of its two national networks, and the bidders include Multivision. The Vargas family owns 19 radio stations and a restaurant chain as well as the pay-TV network; winning the bid for the network would give them a chance to go head to head with Televisa after years of nibbling at the edges of the giant’s market.
Televisa vice president Burillo says that his company is actually looking forward to the competition when the government network is sold. “We are always the focus of criticism. Now there will be a point of comparison.”
Despite such talk, Televisa’s greatest successes in the United States came when the company operated as a Spanish-language monopoly north of the border. In 1961, while other Mexican businesses were content to serve a carefully protected domestic market, Televisa was buying up U.S. television stations. Azcarraga’s network covered most Spanish-speaking regions of the United States by 1986, relaying Mexican-made programming to his U.S. stations through a sophisticated satellite system in Laguna Niguel.
The technical success and expansion did not stop squabbles with his U.S. partners, who felt Azcarraga was taking an undue share of the profits. Then the Federal Communications Commission accused Azcarraga of using a time-honored Mexican ploy for circumventing inconvenient laws restricting ownership: prestanombres or, literally, borrowed names. Azcarraga, as a foreigner, was limited to a 20% interest in the U.S. stations. The government charged that Azcarraga controlled them through in-name-only partners such as the late Reynold V. Anselmo, a New York businessman who borrowed money from Azcarraga to buy a 25% stake in the company. Under pressure from the commission, Azcarraga agreed to sell.
For now, Televisa is trying to rebuild its U.S. network by purchasing air time. The Mexican company buys evening time slots from Channel 22 in Los Angeles, a former cable station that broadcasts business news during the day. A Houston station also recently began to show Televisa programming. Televisa does not have an ownership interest in either station.
Meanwhile, Azcarraga has expanded into video stores, real estate development and publishing in the United States, with less than spectacular results. The National could not win enough readers away from the sports sections of local papers and specialty publications to build a circulation base, and it quickly folded.
Azcarraga’s high-toned marina at Battery Park in New York also has flopped. To head up the flashy development, Azcarraga chose former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, one of his best political contacts in the United States. The former actor seemed the perfect choice to sell slips for as much as $1 million each. In addition, Gavin had previously worked in Televisa’s satellite communications subsidiary. The only problem, according to one company wag, was that “Gavin could not sell ice cream in Saudi Arabia.”
However, these failed ventures are at the sidelines of what Televisa most wants to do in the United States: Spanish-language broadcasting. Televisa executives believe that if ownership restrictions are removed with the free-trade accord, they can take charge of that quickly growing market as surely as they dominate Mexican television. The two U.S. Spanish-language networks, Univision and Telemundo, are both losing money. There simply are not enough viewers and advertising dollars for two networks, much less three. But Felix Cortez, executive vice president of Televisa’s ECO subsidiary, believes that Televisa has an edge.
“The problem is programming, and we have the production,” says Cortez. “We’re growing, and we must wait it out. There is a fixed amount of advertising dollars being divided among three. Someday it will be divided among two and then one. That is the law of competition.”
That is the kind of competition Azcarraga envisions when he challenges the United States to open its borders: the kind where one huge company dominates Spanish-language broadcasting, setting the cultural and political tone, dictating terms to advertisers and entertainers.
But Azcarraga may be in for a shock. Free trade could bring U.S. Spanish-language television networks south of the border, searching for a larger audience among his 80 million countrymen and bringing free-market competition to Mexican television.
“If there is competition, Televisa is going to have to improve the quality of its programming, beginning with the news,” says Mexican newspaper reporter Raymundo Riva Palacio, a Nieman Fellow studying the Mexican media at Harvard. “Televisa’s soap operas and variety shows have their following and will continue to be popular. But better news programs (on another channel) would easily draw the most enlightened viewers away from Televisa, which would then become a second-class medium. I don’t believe Azcarraga is worried. But he should be.”