Emilio Nicolas Sr., Spanish-language media trailblazer who gave us Univision, dies
Emilio Nicolás Sr., a native of Mexico who helped revolutionize Spanish-language television in the United States and was involved in creating the network that became Univision, has died at his home in San Antonio.
Nicolás, who died Oct. 12, was 88.
“At a time when there was little representation for the growing Hispanic community in this country, he built the country’s first Spanish-language television station, paving the way for Univision as we know it today,” the media company said in a statement.
“Emilio’s efforts ensured Latino communities across the country would have access to information and news in their native language for generations to come. He also provided countless opportunities for Hispanics to work in media and entertainment.”
One of five children, Nicolás was born in Coahuila on Oct. 27, 1930. He moved from San Luis Potosi to San Antonio in 1948 to learn English. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology with a minor in math from St. Mary’s University in 1951 and received a master’s from Trinity University the following year.
Later he worked at Southwest Foundation as a researcher studying arteriosclerosis (the thickening and hardening of artery walls) and worked on the development of the polio vaccine. It was a hazardous job.
``"We worked with the live polio virus,” Nicolás told the San Antonio Express-News in 2005. “We’d get it in vials. It was in desiccated form, so that if you dropped one of those vials, you might as well believe that you were dead.”
But 1955 would be a safer year. It was the year that commenced his trailblazing career in Spanish TV and media.
Nicolás started working for Channel 41, San Antonio’s KCOR-TV, the nation’s first Spanish-only TV outlet founded by his father-in-law, Raoul Cortez. For the next six years, Nicolás served in nearly every position at the station: cameraman, ad salesman, programming director and news director, and producer of live shows and commercials with the station’s only camera.
He’d write the jingles, too.
But he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the station’s general manager and president before buying the network with a team of investors in 1961, which included Mexican media giant Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta.
They renamed the station KWEX-TV and launched two new stations — KFTV in Fresno and KMEX in Los Angeles. They created Spanish International Communications Corp. before forming the Spanish International Network, the country’s first TV network to broadcast content in a non-English language.
Spanish International Network would eventually become Univision.
"`If it had not been for his foresight, there would not have been Hispanic television in the United States,” Joe Sandoval, president of the San Antonio Assn. of Hispanic Journalists, told the San Antonio Express-News.
Growing an audience was a challenge, however.
Television sets in the 1950s were only equipped to receive channels 2 to 13, or VHF, which made it hard for local stations to survive. To access channels 14 and higher (UHF), people had to buy antennas and converters. So Nicolás lobbied in Congress to require that all TVs offer both tuners. In the early 1960s, Congress passed the All-Channel Receiver Act mandating just that.
Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Clinton, met Nicolás in the mid-1970s and remembers him as a highly energetic, quick-witted man with a gravelly voice who gesticulated when he spoke.
“He was also a very elegant person,” Cisneros said. “He dressed in a sporty-style, sport coats, slacks, tie. If you saw him at work, he would have his shirt sleeves rolled up and his tie loosed right in the middle of a technical problem on a set ... but then you saw him a few hours later in a business reception and he would look like he just walked out of a fashion magazine.”
By the early 1980s, Spanish International Network had expanded to include more than 200 sister stations across the country. But a judge ordered the sale of Spanish International Communications Corp. when inner conflict led the partners to a federal court. Nicolás sold the company to Hallmark Cards for $301.5 million. He left in 1987.
Shortly after the sale, he and Azcárraga’s son started Galavision, the nation’s third Spanish-language network, further cementing his legacy in the country’s media landscape.
In the little more than 10 years that Luis Patiño, Univision’s current president and general manager, knew Nicolás, he said he learned many valuable lessons from him: “That we could never forget where we come from. That at the end of the day, Spanish-language media was really built to advocate on behalf of the community and give voice to the voiceless.
“He created a platform that gave voice to a community that in many ways was disregarded and a community that has always been aspirational but was simply looking for a platform and for somebody to showcase all the amazing things they could do.”
Throughout his life, Nicolás was involved in civic causes. He was a 25-year member of the Board of Trinity University and served on the boards of the San Antonio Savings Assn., the University of Texas Health Science Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, among others.
His major contributions to the media world garnered him many awards and honors, among them El Premio Ohtli, Mexico’s highest honor given to a Mexican citizen living in another country, the Spirit of Broadcasting award from the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the Texas Medal of Arts award.
Nicolás is survived by his wife of 66 years, Irma Alicia Cortez Nicolás, three children, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
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