One month after taking over, the new owners of the Univision Spanish-language television network have canceled three U.S.-produced programs and fired 70 people who worked on them--just as critics of the sale had predicted.
Univision officials said the move was simply a response to ratings, not the implementation of what their critics fear will be a policy of abandoning the network's 50-50 balance between U.S. and Latin American programming in favor of the cheaper imports.
"We have, through the course of our business, been putting programs on and taking them off the air based on viewership, and we're continuing that," said Janet Gavarrete, Univision director of network services. "Our policy has not changed. If you look at the programs getting the best ratings, the origin of the program is irrelevant."
The canceled shows include the newsmagazines "Portada" and "Al Mediodia" and a variety show, "Charytin International." All three were produced at Univision's Miami headquarters, although 10 of the people who lost their jobs were "Al Mediodia" staffers based in Los Angeles.
Univision--which reaches about 90% of U.S. Hispanic households through its nine owned-and-operated television stations, including KMEX-TV Channel 34 in Los Angeles--was sold last year by Hallmark Cards Corp. to a group headed by Los Angeles investor A. Jerrold Parenchio that includes Mexican media baron Emilio Azcarraga and Venezuelan media magnates Gustavo and Ricardo Cisneros.
When the sale was announced, about two dozen Latino groups nationwide protested that the change of ownership would lead to a drastic reduction in the number of programs originating in the United States and to much more fare being imported from Latin America. Azcarraga has a near-monopoly on broadcast television in Mexico through his ownership of Televisa, the $2-billion, Mexican-based production company that is the world's largest producer and exporter of programming.
Now, it would appear that their predictions are coming true, as two of the three canceled shows will be replaced in February by Mexican programs--one a collection of soap operas, the other a comedy revue hosted by veteran Mexican comic Chespirito, which is produced at Azcarraga's Televisa Studios in Mexico City.
"It's very clear to us that Azcarraga's in charge and production's going to go off-shore, except for the daily news programs," said Esther Renteria, national chairwoman of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "We've been concerned all along that they'd get rid of U.S. employees and replace (U.S.-produced shows) with product from Mexico and Venezuela which are cheaper. . . . So we're very sorry to see these cuts happening, but this is what we said would happen."
Renteria's organization unsuccessfully filed a petition to deny the transfer of the Univision license and now is appealing the Federal Communications Commission's approval of the sale.
Officials at KMEX said they do not have plans to cut back on local production and defended the Univision cancellations by pointing out the programs' low ratings in the recently established Nielsen Hispanic Television Index.
"We've tried these midday magazine formats (such as "Al Mediodia") and they work well from a sales perspective, but from the station perspective they're the worst," said KMEX general manager Mike Martinez. "They don't do any ratings. They mess up our flow. I'd like us to do more domestic production, but it has to work for us. Movies, novelas , comedies--they all do much better."
As with English-language television, Martinez said, ratings are all-important. " 'Portada' had a small but loyal audience," he said. "If it was a '60 Minutes,' I guarantee we would keep it."
Univision's Gavarrete agreed that "this is no different than English-speaking programming. When NBC, ABC and CBS put a show on the air, they introduce it on the new fall lineup and, if it's a success and garners the ratings that justify its expense, then it stays on and people employed with the show stay employed. But as with English-language television, cancellation is something that occurs. If anything has ever been an on-again, off-again industry, it's television."
Martinez also pointed out that the canceled "Portada" will be replaced on Wednesday nights by the Los-Angeles produced "El Nuevo Show de Paul Rodriguez," starring Los Angeles comedian Paul Rodriguez. His show, which had been on the network for several years, recently had been dropped from the Saturday schedule in favor of movies because of low ratings, but now is being revamped from a celebrity interview format to a more comedic one.
"Paul is still the driving force on the show," Martinez said. "What will happen is it's going to a more comedy-variety format and less of an Arsenio Hall format. The interview format kind of got a little slow."
He also said that six of the 10 Los Angeles people dismissed with the "Al Mediodia" cancellation have been hired at KMEX.