MUCH LIKE THE ENGLISH-language networks, the

MUCH LIKE THE ENGLISH-language networks, the battle among the Hispanic broadcast nets to bring in more revenue is expanding to digital and other nontraditional platforms. And while Univision is still the 2,000-pound gorilla when it comes to ratings and viewership, arch rival Telemundo may have a distinct advantage when it comes to the digital arena.

While Univision is locked into a decade-long deal with Televisa to provide novelas (most of which air in Mexico first), Telemundo has been producing dramas in the U.S. through its own studios, meaning the network owns the rights and can program the shows on whatever platforms it wants. Owning its own novelas not only enables Telemundo to offer product integration, but also allows deals for putting content on cell phones and offering shows via video-on-demand.

Though Univision boasts broader reach when it comes to cross-platform opportunities for advertisers—encompassing Univision, TeleFutura, Galavision, the Univision Radio Group, Univision Music and its network Web sites—Univision Communications president and COO Ray Rodriguez acknowledges that Univision cannot offer novelas via VOD or stream them on the Web. “Our concentration is elsewhere now,” he said during a press conference at the recent upfront.

Univision is locked in a legal battle with Televisa over a number of issues, including who owns the rights to stream the novelas in the U.S. But as Rodriguez says, “It is not a front-burner issue right now.” That potentially is good news for Telemundo, which devoted considerable time during the upfront—much like sister network NBC—to digital offerings on which to distribute not only novelas but sports, music and lifestyle programs.

Telemundo also has made a deal to create the site Yahoo! Telemundo, which will offer Telemundo content and links to other sites from Telemundo and its sister net mun2.

The third Hispanic broadcast net, Azteca America, which owns TV networks in Mexico and produces Spanish-language programming for distribution worldwide, also owns its own U.S. content. Like Telemundo, it holds an advantage over Univision in that it can offer product integration in its shows as well as via other platforms.

While Univision reaches 98 percent of U.S. Hispanic households and Telemundo reaches 92 percent, Azteca America is seen in only about one-third of the country. But its markets include those with heavy Hispanic viewership, including Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Phoenix. Univision could go over the $1 billion mark in this upfront buying period, while Telemundo is expected to approach $400 million. Azteca’s upfront take, meanwhile, will be under $100 million.

While Telemundo touts its sizable season-to-date ratings increases (albeit off lower bases) of 68 percent in prime time, 58 percent in early morning, 42 percent for evening news and 15 percent for daytime, and while Azteca says it is now getting a 5 percent share of all-day Hispanic audiences, it is still Univision that draws the bulk of Hispanic viewers.

Univision’s Rodriguez says now that Nielsen Media Research is issuing Hispanic network data under its National Television Index in addition to the National Hispanic Television Index, allowing direct ratings comparisons between Hispanic and English-language nets, Univision will benefit tremendously. After next season, NHTI will be eliminated, with all networks getting measured only under the NTI. “For the Spanish media to grow their share of ad dollars, they need to be fishing in the same ocean as the English-language networks,” Rodriguez says. “The NTI is where the big money is.”

Using NTI data, Univision, on four of seven nights each week over the past two months, has beaten at least one of the Big Four broadcast networks in prime time among adults 18-34. This month, Univision’s novela La Fea Mas Bella (The Ugliest Pretty Girl) on one week beat ABC, WB and UPN among adults 18-34. And in March, Telemundo produced the highest 18-34 prime-time ratings in its history.

How that will play out in the current upfront buying period remains to be seen. The Hispanic nets still boast only about half of the some 300 total national advertisers, and many advertisers remain hesitant to make the additional investment to produce ads in Spanish. But Steve Mandala, Telemundo’s senior vp, sales and marketing, says pre-upfront conversations with GlaxoSmithKline and Merck had him confident that the pharmaceutical giants may jump into the Hispanic TV marketplace for the first time.

John Consoli is a senior editor covering network TV for Mediaweek.