Univision and Telemundo Are Battling It Out on a Digital Front

Can Comcast’s ownership help tip the scales?

Alicia Menendez is a digital and mobile junkie. The 30-year-old host of Alicia Menendez Tonight, a weeknight talk program about sex, money and power on Univision and ABC’s joint-venture news network Fusion, is practically fused to her mobile device, even when she’s watching TV. “I just want them in tandem. One augments the other,” she says one evening after filming a segment at the Univision/Fusion Newsport headquarters in Doral, Fla., just outside of Miami.

A few miles away in Hialeah, Telemundo novelas Web producer Veronica de la Fuente trawls telenovela content to find fresh social media fodder. With hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans following the more popular soaps, it’s safe to say these aren’t your grandmother’s programs. “Things that never fail: the actresses’ dresses and the handsome guys of the novela,” says de la Fuente.

The jobs of these women illustrate the contrasting ways in which Univision and Telemundo are reaching into the digital space. (Both companies have fought for decades to secure Hispanic TV audiences—a fight Univision has dominated.) Where Univision is looking to grow new digital businesses like Fusion and online destination Flama, Telemundo chooses to mine its existing strong suit—telenovelas—for digital iterations. They want the same thing—to attract young and active Hispanic millennials—but are going about it in much different ways.

Growing Up Hispanic

There’s a good reason the companies are aggressively building out digitally. According to the latest Census report, 52 million Hispanics live in the U.S., with nearly two out of three (65 percent) between 18 and 34. The population is expected to grow to 132.8 million by 2050 and much of that growth will be fueled by immigrant children and grandchildren.

While these second- and third-generation Hispanics still understand the nuances of their forebears’ culture, many are English-first, notes Mario García, founder of global media consulting firm García Media. A 2012 Pew study indicates that English is the predominant language in 34 percent of Hispanic households, up from 9 percent in 2011, while Spanish is on the decline. “I have children of my own who were born here,” García says. “Their likes and dislikes have less to do with Hispanics than they have to do with millennials of their own age of all ethnic groups.”

There’s one common element among almost all young Latinos: an appetite to live digitally—not unlike Menendez. A Pew report, Latinos and Digital Technology, finds that Hispanic millennials are 66 percent more likely to use a mobile device than their non-Hispanic friends. And it is well-known that they are the most active group on social media.

“Digital is the very first place to start when you are talking about millennials, particularly Hispanic millennials, where their day and their life is extremely about commenting and posting. The device becomes a huge conduit in their hands,” says Marla Skiko, evp, digital innovation at Starcom MediaVest Multicultural.

The fact that young Hispanics are indoctrinated into mainstream culture makes it easier for brands to reach them using a general-market approach, unlike older generations, says Charles Neugebauer, vp, director of account management of Wing, the Hispanic marketing arm of Grey Global Group. Wing has discovered that Hispanics greatly influence non-Hispanics when they live in close proximity to each other, implying a messaging rub-off on the broader millennial market. And because so many millennial Hispanics live in multigenerational households, marketers also hope they will spread their messages at home.

The Digital Univision

We are inside the soundproofed New York studios of Flama, the Univision Communications/Bedrocket site that covers stories the Spanish network may never touch, using emerging talent from the digital world.

One such performer, who goes by the name D-Stroy, is faking a cough while waving his arms wildly. “Today we’re going to be talking about artists who might have inspired you to smoke, and gangsters who were so high they didn’t realize they were watching Magic Mike in 3-D,” he blurts. The YouTube star completes his slightly NSFW monologue about marijuana, freely ad-libbing. When he’s done, there’s a brief moment of silence before everyone bursts into laughter.

“All right, let’s try it again,” a producer interjects. D-Stroy sticks a little closer to the script on take two.

Personalities like D-Stroy and singer Becky G populate Flama, another of Univision’s new digital offshoots. Though it’s too soon to tell if the kids are watching, first time advertisers like Trojan have signed on.

“It’s about reaching this next generation of Hispanic millennials who are increasingly consuming content online, are really confident in the digital space and engaging with this short-form content that is snackable and sharable. It’s a different consumer behavior than we’ve seen in the past,” says Steven Benanav, Flama gm.

Univision’s approach seems to be to flood the zone with new digital iterations. “Digital has to be part of the DNA of the entire company,” explains Kevin Conroy, president of digital and enterprise development for the parent company. “It’s no longer adequate for digital to be a division of something or a team that works over on the side.”

In that spirit, digital content studio La Fabrica UCI, which launched six months ago, will produce both editorial and native content. Its first venture is Variety Latino, a Spanish-language portal for mass-market entertainment news. Stories about Game of Thrones fandom appear alongside listicles featuring Hispanic stars. Going forward, it will weave in English-language content, mostly from sister venture Fusion. Next up for La Fabrica is Alma Extrema, an extreme sports site set to launch in August that targets men 18-34.

Even methods of storytelling are being affected across all the company’s platforms. Under the watchful eye of chief digital officer Daniel Eilemberg, Fusion’s recent documentary Pimp City, which explored the sex trade, was presented not only in a linear TV format, but also an enhanced, chaptered digital experience involving text, graphics and embedded bonus clips. ABC News president James Goldston applauds Fusion’s efforts in experimentation, adding that the network explores topics ABC can’t necessarily delve into. (Another possible motivator for the network: Hispanic millennials are expected to play a crucial role in the 2016 presidential election.)

“There are stories that we’ve done that we would have done in slightly different ways, and we’re learning which stories are playing well for these audiences and how those stories are playing out,” says Goldston.

Some say Univision’s loyal stable of older viewers threatens to be forgotten, even as social media gets folded into the TV network’s newscasts.

 William Valdés, the on-air social media host for Univision’s Despierta América, makes sure to include segments aimed at older viewers, including a recent segment on how to use Twitter. Afterwards, his mom ended up joining the social network and following him. “I was surprised when she went from a BlackBerry to an iPhone—now she’s on Facebook and Twitter!” he says.

The architect of Telemundo's digital strategy, evp,

digital media and emerging business Peter Blacker

The Telemundo Way

“It’s here somewhere. I saw it when I was driving in,” says Peter Blacker, Telemundo’s evp, digital media and emerging business, as he quickens his pace down the cobblestone streets of New York’s Tribeca.

Blacker turns the corner and the Tribeca Cinemas marquee comes into view. He runs ahead, snapping pictures of the sign boasting the premiere of ISA, the first film out of multiplatform studio Fluency. The supernatural thriller (mostly in English) about a young woman who can manipulate her dreams into reality ran on the Syfy network in June, supplemented with behind-the-scenes digital content. It then headed to Chiller, VOD and digital platforms, and will eventually make its way to Telemundo and Mun2.

If it seems strange that a movie created by Telemundo would air first on a different network and have so much online-only content, that is exactly how Blacker planned it (Fluency, Syfy, Chiller and Telemundo are all under the NBCUniversal umbrella). Where Univision keeps building new destinations, Telemundo has concentrated on making use of its sibling relationships to expose Telemundo content to new audiences and then bring them back to the mothership. Whether it’s Fluency’s non-traditional storytelling or partnerships with Fandango Cine, or Enfoque host José Díaz-Balart becoming anchor of MSNBC’s 10 a.m. newscast, Telemundo content is being liberally sprinkled across the parent company.

“What we’ve tried to do in the past year has been to increase our commitment and investment in Hispanic assets and to identify assets that may have appeal and be reflective of the Hispanic audiences but may also appeal to non-Hispanic audiences,” explains Joe Uva, NBCUniversal’s chairman of Hispanic enterprises and content (who until 2011 held a similar title at Univision).

Advertisers are getting into the game. Samsung sponsored ISA and also happens to be the phone its mobile-addicted characters use. In a similar move to Univision, Telemundo also is turning to YouTube for talent appealing to millennials.

ISA actors include Southern California online star Eric G. Ochoa, who, as SupereeeGO, riffs on Mexican culture. (His video Cholas Bailando Cumbia has been viewed 13.3 million times since 2010.) Fluency’s next movie, a romantic comedy with the working title Ana Maria, will feature Latina social media star and singer Carla Morrison.

“You can’t be innovative if you’re looking at your own talent and your own people. Of all the divisions in our company, we should be at the forefront and the edge of finding the Eric Ochoas because those are going to be the future talent pool that are going to drive people across all screens,” Blacker says.

Blacker, who earlier led AOL’s multicultural initiatives, believes historically trailing Univision has forced Telemundo to become creative and given it an edge, particularly in the realm of telenovelas. There’s plenty of ground for experimentation, including the social media-centric telenovela Secreteando. Consuming the entire storyline requires watching twice-weekly digital installments and reading through character postings on Facebook and Twitter. A second season, sponsored by Procter & Gamble, is currently airing. The audience has grown 235 percent since the first series, to 12 million viewers. “If you want an engaged audience, you don’t want to just push something out at them,” says Christine Escribano, svp, integrated marketing solutions. “You’ve got to pull from your audience and invite them to be part of it.”

Telenovelas and movies are not the only content with which Telemundo is experimenting. The awards show Premios Tu Mundo started out as an online voting push, notes Borja Perez, Telemundo’s svp, digital and social media. The net also adapted NBC’s The Voice and Bravo’s Top Chef into La Voz Kids and Top Chef Estrellas, respectively; each relies heavily on online participation and bonus Web content.

“My daughter tells me, ‘Oh my God, it’s like the real one!’” Perez says of La Voz Kids. “When they say it’s like the real one, you know you got it. If you give them something watered down, it’s not going to stick.”

Who’s got the edge?

With such different approaches, is it possible to say that either Univision or Telemundo has the upper hand?

Michael Fernandez, president of experiential marketing agency Factory 360, gives a slight advantage to Telemundo, as it can work with other NBCU properties with a built-in millennial base. “Univision is force-fitting themselves into the equation,” he says. “They are trying to create something when they don’t have equity with millennials.”

MEC Bravo managing partner Vilma Vale-Brennan says that while Telemundo may have a more fully formed digital video strategy, she believes Univision is the one to watch due to the strength and reach of the net across the Hispanic audience, as well as its partnerships. She also sees Univision’s digital material as more novel—from the way it looks at news with Fusion to the pop culture sound bites it gets from Flama. “They are way ahead of Telemundo in their position, and their offerings just make a richer platform,” says Vale-Brennan.

Perhaps Telemundo does hold one trump card. NBCU’s parent is cable giant Comcast, which serves high-capacity Internet access to some 24 million homes. Xavier Mantilla, svp, multicultural media at Universal McCann Worldwide, says that could tip matters if Comcast opts to manipulate Internet speeds in Telemundo’s favor, depending on where net neutrality rules end up. “Comcast could possibly give Univision a hard task to match if they pull it all together,” says Mantilla.

For the foreseeable future, Telemundo and Univision will continue to duke it out.