Big hopes for Telemundo -- Sony purchases the Spanish-language network with plans to revamp it

By Mike Flaherty
Updated January 15, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The Taco Bell chihuahua is about as close as most Americans get to experiencing Spanish-language TV. In fact, there’s a whole landscape devoted to Latino life (albeit a land time forgot), populated with overheated soap opera divas, pneumatic, Amazonian chiquitas, and the occasional dude in a bee suit. An uncanny mixture of camp and the outright bizarre — not to mention production values rarely seen since Desilu (heck, Spanish wrestling looks tacky even by American standards) — it’s long been a laugh riot for cheeky gringo hipsters. But a lot of younger Latin Americans are often left wondering what any of this has to do with their increasingly bicultural experience.

Turns out, where many see fodder for ridicule, Sony recognized an opportunity for cold cash. In November 1997, the media giant (in partnership with Liberty Media) snatched up the faltering, 12-year-old Telemundo network for an estimated $539 million, beating out King World and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The result? A new outlet for Sony’s vast film and TV library and a platform from which to export Spanish-language programming worldwide. Bravo, sinergia!

But Sony had even bigger plantains to fry: It also hoped to create the first real Latino network — the first, at any rate, to appeal to the 18- to 49-year-old Latinos who grew up with no choices beyond American TV’s stereotypes of Hispanics and the archaic mores perpetuated by Spanish TV (most notably in the enormously popular prime-time soaps known as telenovelas). ”We’re like a lost generation of TV viewers,” says Nely Galán, Telemundo’s 34-year-old Latina president of entertainment. ”You watch TV with your mom, and you’re like, ‘Mommy, por favor, this woman is, like, marrying her rapist! What’s the story here?”’

Generation-gap issues aside, Telemundo has its work cut out for it, thanks to a little operation known as Univision. With a prime-time share hovering around 85 percent, the Miami-based Univision has long been the No. 1 Latino network and the dominant supplier of Spanish-language programming to the U.S. Popular with older viewers and recent arrivals, thanks in large part to the aforementioned telenovelas, Univision also boasts the hit morning show Despierta América, Cristina (think a Latina Oprah), and the most successful variety show in the world, the anything-goes Sábado Gigante.

Since its 1992 purchase by reclusive, non-Hispanic tycoon A. Jerrold Perenchio (who appointed former Clinton secretary of housing and urban development Henry Cisneros COO in 1997), Univision has seen its viewership and advertising dollars grow at a time when America’s Big Four are experiencing significant losses in both areas. In terms of audience size, Univision is bigger than either The WB or UPN. (Univision will not comment on any facets of the organization.)