At 50 Years Old, How Univision Owns the Hispanic Audience

Univision Main Image - H 2012
Dorothy Hong

Univision Main Image - H 2012

With 52 million viewers and counting, the network is nipping at the heels of the Big Four networks as the brand most recognized and trusted by Latinos -- second only to the Church.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos stand onstage at the University of Miami's BankUnited Center in front of an audience of 700. It is 6 p.m. on Sept. 19, and they are awaiting the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for the first of two "Meet the Candidates" forums. Salinas is wearing black peep-toe stilettos (definitely not sensible shoes), while Ramos, known as the Hispanic Walter Cronkite, paces in a slate, single-breasted slim suit and skinny tie. The two have anchored Univision's nightly newscast Noticiero Univision since 1986 (off camera, she refers to him as "Georgy"). On this day, they and their executives at the Spanish-language network have achieved a historic coup, having compelled the presidential candidates to rearrange their stumping schedules to address the Hispanic audience in Miami, home of Univision's headquarters and where you can go days without hearing English spoken.

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"I've been with the company for 31 years, and I can tell you there's been a humongous change," says Salinas of the network, which celebrates 50 years in business this year. "When we started, there were 14 million Hispanics, now there are [more than] 50 million. Before, we had to beg for interviews and explain who we were. Now the doors to the White House are open to Univision. We don't have to go knocking on their door, they come knocking on ours."

Salinas and Ramos ask their questions in Spanish, which are translated for the candidates via earpieces. At 6:15 p.m., Romney, still backstage, can be heard over the translation channel asking: "I'm not going to hear my answers translated [in Spanish] in my ear, am I?"

The forums -- which aired Sept. 19 and 20 on Univision and were streamed live in partnership with Facebook (helping fuel an Internet mini-firestorm over Romney's overly tanned makeup, allegedly applied to court this audience) -- were a direct result of some well-placed outrage on the part of Univision Communications CEO Randy Falco.

Falco -- a Bronx-born Anglo who does not speak Spanish, though he asserts, "I speak the language of television" -- was on his way home to Westchester from his Manhattan office Aug. 13 when he heard over the radio the news of the moderators selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates. They included the usual suspects: PBS' Jim Lehrer, CBS' Bob Schieffer and, lo and behold, the first female debate moderator in 20 years, CNN's Candy Crowley. "I was furious," Falco recalls. Says Ramos: "The Commission, I think, are stuck in the 1950s. I truly admire the moderators they chose, but the U.S. is much more diverse than that. It's a strange case where politics is ahead of the media. They are saying, 'Yes, it's OK to have an African-American president but not OK to have a minority representative in the debates.' "

On Aug. 15, Commission executive director Janet Brown received a letter from Falco expressing "disappointment" that the organization "neglected to have anyone speak credibly to the concerns of Hispanics in America" and offering to host a fourth debate. "I knew what the answer was going to be," says Falco. "They'd write back and say sorry, blah, blah, blah."

Neither Ramos nor Falco was going to let it go.

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That night on Noticiero Univision, Ramos publicly urged both candidates to participate in a forum or additional debate hosted by Univision.

Two days later the Obama campaign called. "I knew Obama would do it," says Falco. "It was a little later that we heard from Romney. And I'm sure it was because they were hearing that Obama had agreed. They couldn't say no."

Univision is making itself heard on the political landscape, only partially because the Spanish-speaking constituency in the U.S. numbers 23 million registered voters. "Without the Hispanic vote, you can't make it to the White House," notes Ramos.

The Hispanic population has grown at a rate of 43 percent since 2000 -- four times the national growth rate, according to the U.S. Census. Latinos are firmly established in all corners of culture, from sports (Major League Baseball is nearly 30 percent Hispanic) to entertainment (Sofia Vergara, Pitbull, Shakira and Justin Bieber paramour Selena Gomez are crossover superstars) to politics and government (San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro made a splash at the Democratic convention in September; in 2009 Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina Supreme Court justice). By 2050, one in three Americans will be Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center. Right now, the country's 52 million Hispanics are sitting on $1.2 trillion in spending power.

"This is a big wave," says Falco, who joined Univision as COO in January 2011 (after a stint at AOL) and was elevated to CEO less than six months later. "You're either going to be on top of it when it hits or you're going to be underneath it. But it's hitting."

Headquartered in New York and in the Miami suburb of Doral, Fla., Univision has ridden the demographic wave since its beginnings in 1962 when KMEX -- now Univision's flagship station in Los Angeles -- became one of the first non-English TV stations in the U.S. Acquired in 2007 by a consortium led by Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban (a staunch Democrat, Saban got a hearty embrace from Obama after the Sept. 20 forum), today Univision Networks employs more than 4,400 across 62 owned TV stations, 69 radio stations, two broadcast networks, 10 cable networks and an interactive team.

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Univision's primetime lineup of telenovelas (which air five nights a week), sports and unscripted programming -- including the top-rated ¡Mira Quien Baila! (Look Who's Dancing), a Spanish-language Dancing With the Stars, now in its third season -- has helped to establish it as the fifth-ranked network behind the broadcast big four (Fox, CBS, NBC and ABC), averaging close to 2 million viewers in primetime among the 18-to-49 demographic. The network is routinely No. 1 in that demo Friday nights, when its telenovelas reach their weekly cliffhanger. With a median-viewer age of 36 (compared to CBS and ABC's north of 50 and late 40s for Fox and NBC), the trend lines for Univision are going in the opposite direction as its English-language competition has steadily shed viewers, especially younger ones, for the past decade. Last season, Univision outperformed at least one or more of the big four on 245 nights among viewers 18 to 34. This is due in no small part to its catalog of Televisa-produced telenovelas, which are DVR-proof -- one reason why an incredible 93 percent of Univision's primetime is viewed live. (Mexican media giant Televisa, which tried to buy Univision outright in 2007, purchased a $1.2 billion, 5 percent stake in the company in 2010.)

Such audience domination and viability -- 84 percent of Hispanic millennials choose to speak Spanish, according to Nielsen -- are not going unnoticed by potential competitors. Legacy media companies with established channels in the space are rushing to launch more. News Corp. last summer unveiled MundoFox, adding to a Spanish-language lineup that includes Fox Deportes, launched in 1996 as Fox Sports en Espanol, and NatGeoMundo, unveiled last year.

New players are emerging with dizzying frequency, some with A-list talent attached. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is the creative force behind El Rey, an English-language cable network aimed at acculturated Hispanics that is set to launch in January 2014 on Comcast.

But Univision Networks maintains 73 percent of Spanish-language broadcast viewers, with Univision commanding 59 percent of that market share and sibling networks TeleFutura and GalaVision accounting for 11 and 3 percent, respectively. That's down from 79 percent compared to 10 years ago, but still well ahead of closest rival Telemundo with its 21 percent audience share. In fact, three of the top five broadcasts last season among bilingual adults 18 to 34 were on Univision (the Latin Grammys, an episode of the telenovela Teresa and music awards show Premio Lo Nuestro). Whether upstart networks can capture a bigger piece of the Hispanic market remains to be seen. But they are united in their target. Fox International Channels CEO Hernan Lopez told media buyers in New York last May at the inaugural MundoFox upfront -- the company spent $50 million to launch the channel -- that Spanish-language viewers only "think they're happy with their current choices."

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Univision is arming for the insurgency with a company-wide ramp-up under Falco that aims to make Univision-branded content available to consumers on all platforms. On Oct. 17, the network will unveil a redesign of its iconic tulip logo with a new tagline: The Hispanic Heartbeat of America. Last spring, Univision Networks launched three cable channels; tlnovelas, Univision 24/7 and the soccer (or futbol) focused Univision Deportes, whose new president, Mexican media entrepreneur Juan Carlos Rodriguez, joined the company two months ago. When headhunters approached him about relocating from Mexico to Miami to work at Univision, he says his first thought was, "They don't need a Mexican there."

"But now I know I was wrong," says Rodriguez. That's because the growth business for Spanish-language sports is Mexican league soccer. Univision has secured U.S. rights to 12 of the 18 teams within Liga MX, the premiere Mexican soccer league, including Spanish and English rights for the storied team Chivas beginning in July 2013."Our real business is futbol," he says.

Univision has the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and its highest-rated sports events have historically been men's World Cup matches. But last year, Telemundo poached those rights -- and will pay $600 million to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 men's finals alone, almost doubling the $325 million Univision will have paid for the 2010 and 2014 finals. Rodriguez is sanguine about the loss. "I get paid to make money," he says. "And the amount of money they are paying for those rights, they are taking a risk."

Another piece of the expansion is a streaming and social-destination business designed to appeal to younger constituents. Hispanics over-index in mobile technology (45 percent of Hispanic mobile phone users have smartphones, compared to 34 percent in the general market). UVideos, a free streaming service (launched Oct. 15) and app for tablets and mobile devices (available Oct. 29), will put all Univision content -- with English subtitles -- on one platform with a deep social experience via Twitter and Facebook Connect. The app will be available at launch to DISH subscribers and on AT&T U-verse, Cablevision and Microsoft's Xbox by year's end. "Over the past three years we've seen our mobile audience explode," says Kevin Conroy, president of Univision Interactive Media.

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In the summer, Univision will unveil its first English-language network, a 24-hour cable news and lifestyle channel that is a joint venture with ABC News. It is designed to go after the third and fourth generations of acculturated Hispanics who are increasingly the focus of marketers and advertisers. "We're talking about an enormous influential, affluent and growing segment of our country," says ABC News president Ben Sherwood. "We're talking about an economy the size of Turkey or Indonesia that exists right here in the U.S. today. We're talking about political influence that is powerful today and will be inevitably more powerful."

ABC parent Disney is handling distribution of the still unnamed network, and in September, Disney (which has the popular suite of ESPN networks to leverage) secured carriage on Cablevision, which serves more than 3 million customers in the New York area. The network will be based in Doral. Start-up costs are estimated at $275 million, including a new 150,000-square-foot studio, while the channel is expected to employ about 350 people.

The ABC News partnership lets Univision's broadcast news division diversify its portfolio and gives its news talent another outlet; since the announcement last May, Ramos and Salinas have appeared somewhat regularly on ABC News. Salinas sat next to Diane Sawyer during coverage of the Democratic National Convention, while Ramos discussed the Supreme Court's July ruling on Arizona's controversial immigration law on a slew of broadcasts (Nightline, World News).

Of course, many media critics and pundits, especially from factions hostile to immigration, have accused Univision's news division of engaging in "advocacy journalism." But Salinas contends the network does not take a position on issues. "I think of it more as contributing to democracy and to the debate on immigration," she says. "Because without our point of view it's not a debate, it's a monologue of blaming immigrants for all the ills of this country."

It's precisely that commitment to the Latino perspective that fuels Univision's success. "We owe a lot of that [market-leading position] to the unique relationship we have with our community," says Univision Networks president Cesar Conde. "There has been this void of leadership nationwide, and I think in many ways Univision has filled that void in the Hispanic community, as far as being its defender, being its advocate. It's a very unique role that we play. Second to the Church, Univision is the most recognized and trusted brand among Hispanics."

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And Madison Avenue is getting the message: Univision pulled in $2.2 billion in ad revenue in 2011, according to Kantar, up nearly 17 percent year-over-year. In May, the network secured $1.5 billion in upfront commitments, says Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce, compared to Telemundo's $560 million. A large chunk of that came from a nine-figure deal with Starcom and its multicultural agency Tapestry, which purchased time across Univision's networks and platforms for clients including Burger King, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg, Allstate and Bank of America. It was the first big deal of the upfront selling season, and the first time the market broke with a Spanish-language company.

But it's not only numbers that sell -- loyalty does, too. Univision, says Starcom Worldwide president Mike Rosen, "represents a culturally based community that takes loyalty to a media brand to another level. People have their favorites in both languages. But that connection is deeper with Univision because it also represents a deeper cultural identity."

The values that have always defined the Latin aesthetic -- family, community, hard work, inclusiveness -- also happen to be resurgent in the post-bust, recessionary culture at large. And Conde, who always wears a suit and is infrequently without a necktie, embodies the current generation of Hispanic overachievers. Born in America to a Peruvian cardiologist father and a Cuban mother who went back to school for a Ph.D. in international relations after Conde and his two younger brothers left for college, the 38-year-old has been at Univision for nine years since arriving at GalaVision in 2003. All three Conde boys attended Ivy League schools; Cesar has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Growing up, Cesar says: "You had two responsibilities: One, you had to be the best in whatever you did. But second, you had to make sure that the brother who came after you met or surpassed you."

As Linda Ong, a branding expert and founder of Truth Co. who is consulting with Univision on cultural analysis, explains: "Hispanics in America today don't feel one portion of society has to lose in order for another to win. That makes them better prepared to weather tough economic times because they rely on their values of hard work, education, community, perseverance and self-reliance, as they have historically in their quest to better their lives." She adds: "Hispanic culture is win-win. It's not English or Spanish -- it's both. It's yes and yes. Or yes and ."

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It's one reason Falco, the latest in a succession of Anglos in the Univision executive job, has been so welcomed -- though he admits there was some initial wariness. "I won't pretend there weren't some people who were concerned about that." But Falco, who spent more than 30 years at NBC, has fully embraced the Latin ethos. Hanging on the wall of his office are the Univision 10 commandments: No. 1, "Act with integrity"; No. 4, "We can only win together"; No. 9, "Win don't whine, no one wants to hear it" and No. 10, "Celebrate excellence and have some fun!"

"You can feel the passion in this place," says Falco. "It's palpable. At other companies, everybody is in competition with each other." He adds, "I don't pretend to speak Spanish fluently. I know enough to get by. But I love this company. I love the opportunity. I really believe this: It's one of the greatest brands in all of media. It really is. And I think we have a special responsibility to this community. It's not hard to find our true north."

MARIA ELENA SALINAS: My Top Five Moments in News

1. Earthquake in El Salvador, 2001: "I followed a man as he searched for his daughter's remains. He found a foot, and I asked him how he knew it was his daughter's. He said every parent knows their kid's feet. It had a big impact on me."

2. General Augusto Pinochet, 1989: "He gave very few interviews to foreign press during his 16-year dictatorship of Chile. It was impressive to be able to question a man who yielded so much power about human rights violations."

3. Manuel Antonio Noriega, 1989: "One of his last interviews before the U.S. invasion of Panama that led to his arrest. He told me U.S. relations soured because he refused to aid Contras fighting Sandinistas in Nicaragua."

4. Kuwaiti Hospital, Iraq War, 2003: "I interviewed 'Ali,' the 13-year-old whose picture with his torso burned and arms blown off became a symbol of collateral damage. In Baghdad, we found his sisters and connected them via satellite phone."

5. Earthquake in Haiti, 2010: "I had never seen so much death and destruction. I spent a week under dire conditions: sleeping on the floor, without sanitation and little food, infected mosquito bites. Left a lasting impression."

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JORGE RAMOS: My Top Five Moments in News

1. Sept. 11, 2001: With all flights grounded, Ramos drove from Miami to New York to cover the terrorist attacks: "Nothing compares to covering war at home. The smells and the sights of those days are still with me."

2. War Reporting: "I have covered five wars: El Salvador, the Gulf, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. The best feeling is to return home safe and embrace my son, Nicolas, and my daughter, Paola."

3. Interviews With Heads of State: The anchor says "meeting the most interesting people in the world, from Obama and George W. Bush to Chavez and Castro" is a great job perk. "What other profession allows you to do that?"

4. Immigration Coverage: "Giving voice to immigrants," is important to Ramos, who left Mexico in 1983 and has interviewed anti-immigration Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. "After all these years, I still feel like an immigrant."

5. World Cups: "What a privilege it is to be a reporter covering the best soccer players in the world," says Ramos. "Futbol is the most important thing among the less important things in life."

The collective spending power of Latino Americans

"When I started in 1975, there were three networks and broadcasters had a charge to take care of their communities. Somewhere along the line, they strayed from that responsibility. When I came here, I found it again. It was refreshing," says CEO Randy Falco (right), photographed Oct. 1 in his office at Univision's Manhattan headquarters with Noticiero Univision co-anchors Ramos (left) and Salinas.

Viewers per episode for the 2010 telenovela Soy Tu Dueña, or A Woman of Steel

Total viewers for the 2010 World Cup second-round match between Mexico and Argentina. (5.5 million viewers watched on ABC.)