Special Report: Spanish Lesson

NEW YORK With their swelling viewership, vast integration opportunities and much-touted engagement with their audiences, the leading Spanish-language TV networks, which have long trailed the English-language nets in attracting national advertisers, are beginning to crack once-cagey accounts.

The largest of the nets, Univision, signed up advertisers in a range of categories, among them Astrazeneca, Motorola, SC Johnson, Mitsubishi and Chase, reports Dennis McCauley, co-president of network sales. This year, 156 advertisers participated in Univision’s upfront, up from 140 last year, he reports, but still well behind the 300 or so marketers negotiating with the English-language nets. Network execs and media buyers estimate the total haul for the Spanish-language nets in this year’s upfront will run 5 percent to 10 percent ahead of last year, when the three leading players—Univision, NBC Universal’s Tele-mundo and Azteca America—raked in more than $1.5 billion.

For Univision, the wave of new business can be chalked up to a number of factors, including its massive reach, winning programming slate and more aggressive selling. “In years past, we told our story about the market, about our company, and then there were the negotiations,” McCauley explains. “If [marketers] came up with a great idea, we’d go there. Now, prior to the upfront, we bring them three ideas, and people are receiving that very, very well.”

Univision Networks, which includes Univision, TeleFutura, Galavision and other multimedia properties, has numbers on its side. Its demo reach often rivals that of the English-language nets, thanks to hits like La Fea Mas Bella (The Prettiest Ugly Girl), which spawned ABC’s popular Ugly Betty. Univision alone accounts for about $1 billion in upfront business.

But Univision’s chief rival, Telemundo, which has mined gold from telenovelas like Zorro, has had a distinct edge when it comes to product integration and digital offerings. It owns and produces its own programming via its Miami studio and has forged partnerships with the likes of Yahoo. This fall, Telemundo will offer advertisers cross-platform opportunities across new programming that includes the telenovela Idolos de Juventud (Youth Idols) and the dating show 12 Corazones: Rumbo al Altar (12 Hearts: On Their Way to the Altar). Another new entry that has buyers buzzing: a weekly, hour-long talk show, Mas Vale Tarde (Better Late), hosted by Alex Cambert and broadcast from the net’s new studio at Universal Studios in Hollywood, Calif.

Telemundo president Don Browne calls this a “defining year” for the Spanish-language networks. “Everyone understands that the Hispanic audience is rapidly growing and will continue to grow,” he says. “It’s unbelievably undervalued. We deliver high-quality audiences, and these ad dollars are not in any way reflecting the audience.”

Effective this year, Nielsen Media Research has retired the National Hispanic Television Index and is issuing Spanish- language network data in its National Television Index, allowing for direct ratings comparisons between English- and Spanish-language networks. Univision’s McCauley believes the NTI will aid in selling Spanish-language nets to national marketers.

Univision is taking a page from digital-focused Telemundo, increasing cross-platform deals and content via online and mobile. “The statement [at the upfront] was, we’re going to be more flexible than we have been in the past,” McCauley says.

That gets a warm reception from buyers. “They want to be better partners in accepting new ideas where previously they were not, and being more flexible about bringing brands into content,” says Danielle Gonzalez, senior vp, media director at Tapestry in Chicago. “Telemundo has been able to use its creative flexibility to attract revenue beyond its share, and I believe Univision is trying to bring the same capabilities and offerings to clients.” She looks for retail, telecom and financial services to be growth categories for Spanish-language nets this year.

Azteca America—seen only in about one-third of the U.S. but with a strong presence in such major Hispanic markets as Los Angeles, New York and Miami—faces a challenging year after station group Pappas Telecasting Cos. terminated its broadcast agreement in five markets. Chairman/CEO Harry J. Pappas said Azteca programming “has not developed and ratings have not grown as we expected.”

The net is busily lining up new partners, inking deals with stations in Houston and Portland, Ore., and Cox Cable in Tulsa, Okla. “It’s more of a distribution question mark that everybody is waiting to get an answer on,” says Tapestry’s Gonzalez. “If they can overcome their distribution challenges, I think advertisers will have no fear beyond that.”