Top NBC Universal executive Jeff Gaspin's world got a lot bigger and more challenging on Wednesday.
Gaspin was put in charge of Telemundo, the Spanish-language network that has struggled in the shadows of its dominant rival, Univision Communications Inc., ever since NBC bought the operation five years ago for $2.7 billion.
Gaspin, who is quickly becoming NBC Universal's jack-of-all-trades, also picked up responsibility for domestic TV syndication. He will continue to oversee the company's general entertainment cable channels, including USA Network and Bravo. Gaspin still will play a role in NBC Universal's efforts in digital media, including the Internet.
"My focus will be on the strategy and building new business models for all of these platforms," Gaspin said.
But turning around Telemundo could prove to be his trickiest task. The Spanish-language operation has long been something of a hot potato in the NBC Universal executive suites. Gaspin, who does not speak Spanish, becomes the fifth senior NBC executive to lead the network, which has failed to increase its share of the audience since the acquisition.
Telemundo continues to muster less than 20% of the prime-time audience for Spanish-language TV. "There have been more bumps in the road than we expected," Gaspin conceded. "But we all believe and understand how valuable Telemundo could and should be."
In his new role, Gaspin will be in charge of Telemundo's programming and its 16 TV stations.
He takes over for former TV stations chief Jay Ireland, who last month took a new job at parent company General Electric Co. Before that, Randy Falco, now chief executive of AOL; Jeff Zucker, now chief executive of NBC Universal; and Andrew Lack, now chairman of Sony BMG, were responsible.
Hector Orci, chairman of La Agencia de Orci, a Los Angeles-based Latino ad firm, said Telemundo's problem boiled down to programming quality.
"They've been doing it on the cheap and with non-Latino intellect in charge," Orci said. "The disadvantage that Telemundo has is that their soap operas are not as popular or as good as Univision's, and their news isn't as strong.... It's evident to me that the management doesn't understand the market."
Over the years, Telemundo has experimented with various strategies including focusing heavily on news and courting telenovela suppliers. Several years ago, NBC Universal began producing its own shows at studios in South Florida and Mexico at a cost of $100 million a year.
Meanwhile, during the last nine months, Telemundo has shed about 90 positions, largely in local news, in an NBC-wide cost-cutting program aimed at improving efficiencies and boosting profits. Telemundo now has 1,800 employees.
One of the few constants at Telemundo has been Don Browne, the network's president, who will continue to run the Hialeah, Fla.-based operation. Gaspin, who is based in Burbank, said his relationship with Browne goes back 15 years, when they both were at NBC News.
One of Gaspin's priorities will be to get Telemundo's youth-oriented cable channel, mun2, into more homes. The channel is available in just 11.5 million homes, or about 10% of those in the U.S. with televisions. The channel's headquarters moved to L.A. in 2005 in an effort to better tap the burgeoning Latino youth population, particularly Latinos of Mexican descent. Mun2 is the third-most-popular Spanish-language cable network, behind Univision's Galavision and Fox Sports en Espanol.
Julio Rumbaut, a Miami-based media consultant, wondered whether targeting the fickle youth market was the right strategy for the cable channel.
"The real issue is that mun2 is competing for young Hispanics in a market that is over-served by resourced and savvy programmers," such as Viacom Inc.'s MTV Tr3s, Rumbaut said. "Other demographics such as Hispanic males are being underserved and are ripe for the taking."
Rumbaut said Telemundo needed an "aura" program like ABC's "Desperate Housewives" to take the network to the next level. He predicted that Gaspin, a proven programmer, would look for a show that would do for Telemundo what "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" did for Bravo several years ago, when Gaspin was in charge.
Gaspin also is credited with bringing VH1 to prominence with the popular "Behind the Music" franchise in the 1990s.