ABC's "Nightline" had the Iranian hostage crisis. CNN had the Gulf War. Now, Spanish-language network Telemundo is hoping that Operation Iraqi Freedom will give it the same lift.
Telemundo said viewership nationwide jumped 27% in the first two days after the war began, thanks to its quick-off-the-mark coverage of the U.S.-led war. Telemundo's surprising surge has put its dominant rival, Univision Communications Inc., in the unusual position of playing catch-up.
Telemundo became the first Spanish-language television network to announce that war had begun. It already had five journalists posted in the Middle East, including one in Baghdad. By comparison, Univision had one small news crew in Kuwait when the war broke out.
Four years ago, Telemundo didn't even have a news division.
Now, viewers are tuning in each day to see more hours of war coverage than on Univision, tailored to the interests and concerns of its viewers. Among other things, Telemundo's two Los Angeles stations have aired special reports on the war's effect on Latinos in Southern California, including job forecasts and immigration issues, and a special on security concerns at the U.S.-Mexican border.
"The war has really become a flash point in our strategy," said Ramon Escobar, a former top MSNBC executive now in charge of news at Telemundo stations. "We think news is the quickest and most effective way to compete against Univision. It's becoming our specialty, and their vulnerability, and so we think that's a nice marriage."
Univision, however, isn't standing still. After watching their ratings drop in the hours after the war began while Telemundo's jumped, executives of Los Angeles-based Univision quickly shifted strategy and sent top anchor Jorge Ramos to the Middle East. Their reporters have since scored their own exclusive interviews.
Despite Telemundo's recent success, Univision is in no danger of losing its ratings dominance. The network routinely draws nearly 80% of all Spanish-language viewers.
Even with Telemundo's 37% ratings jump among the coveted 18-to-49 age group in the war's early days, Univision still had nearly three times as many viewers, or more than 1.7 million, in that demographic category during its prime-time hours.
"I don't feel threatened by them at all," said Jorge Mettey, Univision's news director at KMEX-TV Channel 34 in Los Angeles. "I feel very confident that we are doing a terrific job and that we have enough resources to provide what the community needs."
Nowhere is the battle to win Latino viewers more important, and more hard-fought, than in Los Angeles, which has one-fifth of the nation's Spanish-speaking TV viewers.
Mexican immigrants in the U.S. have long tuned into Univision for its steamy and popular telenovelas offered up by Mexico's Televisa TV. That winning program strategy was the brainchild of Los Angeles billionaire A. Jerrold Perenchio, who has a controlling interest in Univision. He struck a lucrative deal with Televisa, which also has an ownership stake in Univision, to provide programs to the network through 2017.
With Univision locked into its telenovelas, Telemundo saw an opening. Acquired last year for $2 billion by General Electric Co.'s NBC, the underdog network was able to draw on its parent's far-ranging news gathering operations and deep pockets. During the last year, NBC has spent more than $200 million to buy new Telemundo stations and improve equipment and an additional $70 million to, among other things, buy cameras, build sets and add weekend news reports in key markets such as New York and Puerto Rico. Now the Spanish-language network's news broadcasts -- under the slogan "Objetivo: Saddam" -- are bolstered with feeds from NBC and 24-hour cable channel MSNBC.
"We knew this was an opportunity for us to show our expertise in news," said Telemundo President Jim McNamara. "And when there is a level playing field, we can beat Univision."
Telemundo's executive vice president for news, Joe Peyronnin, began working on a war coverage strategy last fall, as soon as tensions with Iraq began rising. A CBS veteran of news events from the Gulf War, Tiananmen Square and Beirut, he ordered a special set built for anchors during war coverage, designed graphics and had reporters begin profiling Latino soldiers and Marines who might go into battle.
"Our audience are the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of the soldiers on the front lines," he said.
Added Manuel Abud, general manager of Telemundo's two stations in Los Angeles, KVEA-TV Channel 52 and KWHY-TV Channel 22, "This whole war has been so relevant to our people, and that's why we've been so totally committed and so aggressive."
Some might say too aggressive. Telemundo came under criticism Tuesday for airing an Iraqi video Sunday that showed American prisoners of war and the lifeless bodies of U.S. soldiers believed to have been killed in an Iraqi ambush.
"Somebody made a mistake," conceded Peyronnin. "And we're sorry."
Univision, which had been relying on feeds from CNN and ABC News, has found itself scrambling to put its signature on war coverage. Still, it is unlikely to cede substantial territory once the fighting in Iraq ends.
"Telemundo has scored big with viewers," said Larry Gerbrandt, a television analyst and chief content officer for Kagan World Media. But, he added, "The key will be what can Telemundo do to carry through and exploit that goodwill that they have built after the war."