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Ailing Telemundo Seeks Cure by Adopting Proven Format

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The floundering Spanish-language Telemundo network made a major departure from its current programming model Monday, introducing a new fall lineup heavy in reality shows, information programming and featuring a return to the tried-and-true telenovelas, night-time soap operas, during a presentation for advertisers at the Sony Imax Theatre in New York. The new schedule will begin rolling out slowly this summer.

Gone from prime time are the weekly police dramas “Angeles” and “Reyes y Rey,” replaced by a two-hour Monday-Friday novela block, which will largely be filled by programming imported from TV Azteca, Mexico’s No. 2 network. Gone, too, are the weeknight movies, made up of dubbed versions of Hollywood hits from the motion picture library of Sony, Telemundo’s corporate parent.

In his first attempt at programming a Spanish-language network, Telemundo President Peter Tortorici broke with convention last fall, abandoning the novela format in favor of U.S.-style dramas and sitcoms in a move the network hoped would position it as a younger, hipper, more acculturated alternative to Univision, the nation’s dominant Spanish-language broadcaster. But that move, and others, failed, sending the network’s ratings into a free-fall--Telemundo’s audience has fallen by more than a third in the past nine months, to less than 8% of Latino households nationwide, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Telemundo’s disastrous first season under Sony ownership far under-performed the ratings promises made to advertisers, and, as a result, the network was forced to air numerous ads for free, costing it more than $1 million in potential revenue. Nevertheless, few ad buyers are giving up on the network after just one season.

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“You have to allow for a certain amount of trial and error,” says Joe Zubizarreta, executive vice president of Zubi Advertising Services, a national ad-buying firm that represents clients such as Ford and Mobil Oil. “I think that now they’re really focused on getting the programming that will deliver the promise. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

In assessing last season’s failed programming strategy, Tortorici, a former CBS Television president, says: “We tried our one-hour dramas against [Univision’s] novelas and it was pretty rough going.

“Part of the reason for that is that people are used to getting their drama in a form that is unique to the market, that’s original every single week. We can be deceived into thinking we’re in the same model as the general networks.”

To help fill its prime-time schedule with original programming all year round, Telemundo recently entered into a partnership with TV Azteca and is actively seeking alliances with other program providers throughout Latin America. The pact with TV Azteca sets up a U.S. showdown between Mexico’s top two networks since rival Univision has long filled its prime-time lineup with novelas imported from Televisa, the world’s top producer of Spanish-language television.

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TV Azteca is a distant second in the ratings in Mexico, but it has made some progress in recent years by developing edgy, socially relevant novelas that offer a sharp contrast to the rags-to-riches romances favored by Televisa. Tortorici is hoping for a comparable performance here.

"[TV Azteca’s] clearly trying to differentiate what they’re doing from what Televisa does in content and story,” said Tortorici. “That’s an important distinction for us.”

But the new reliance on imported programming does not mean Telemundo has completely abandoned its promise to develop domestically produced content that reflects the experience of Latinos in this country. The network is adding two new Miami-based talk shows, a series of network-branded news programs, the reality show “Donde Estara,” which will reunite divided families, and the sitcom “Los Beltran.”

“Los Beltran” goes straight to the heart of the unique tensions that divide segments of the diverse U.S. Latino community, featuring Emiliano Diez as a proud and opinionated Cuban American grocery store owner whose daughter is engaged to a militant Chicano artist played by Demetrius Navarro. In a break from traditional Spanish-language television, the pilot included dialogue in both English and Spanish.


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