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Programming Battle Lands Univision In Court


Now we turn to the legal battle facing the Spanish-language network Univision. Outside of the industry, many people might not know that Univision is the fifth most popular television network in this country, and its success is in large part due to the more than 10 hours of telenovelas it airs each week, which are produced by the Mexican company Grupo Televisa. But the continued presence of that programming on Univision is the subject of a federal trial that began in Los Angeles last week. With us to talk about the trial and about the significance of Spanish-language media is Laura Martinez. She's contributing editor of the Hispanic Television Update Newsletter. Laura, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. LAURA MARTINEZ (Contributing Editor, Hispanic Television Update Newsletter): Thank you for having me.


MARTIN: First, if you would tell us about Univision for folks who are unfamiliar with the network. Why does Univision matter?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Univision not only matters but it always strikes me how mainstream media often forgets or ignores the enormous influence it has over the 40 million-plus Hispanics that live in the U.S. Univision is broadcast virtually everywhere. It owns the most successful television network and the second television network, which would be TeleFutura. It also owns the most popular radio stations in Spanish language, and it has none other than the number one visited Web site in Spanish. So it matters, it's important, and there is a lot at stake here.

MARTIN: Well, how important is the programming to Univision that Grupo Televisa provides?

Ms. MARTINEZ: It's crucial. It's important to clarify that Televisa does not provide with 100 percent of the programming. Of course, Univision does produce a lot of shows, and it's been getting into production. But think about Televisa producing and selling pretty much 40 to 50 percent of Univision's primetime programming, which is basically the popular telenovelas. And this is what brings in most of the ad dollars. This is what brings all of the ratings and all of the eyeballs.

MARTIN: Are telenovelas - I think some people think of them as sort of soap operas, which is just something that people watch when they're at home during the day. But in Spanish-language media, that is not quite right. Am I right about that? It's primetime programming...


Ms. MARTINEZ: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Watched by not just people who are home during the day but a lot of people watch them.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Pretty much entire families watch that, and this is not something that I'm making up. I mean, I grew up watching telenovelas with my family at home in Mexico City. And I remember one particular novella that really marked me, which was a Veronica Castro novella in the early '80s. But the point is that also I understand that the - what you call soap operas here, they just go on and on for years. The telenovelas, unlike soap operas here, they usually last, I don't know, nine to 10 months, sometimes a little less than that. And they are broadcast daily and pretty much on primetime. Of course, both Televisa and Univision, they also have telenovelas that are broadcast during the day but the biggest titles are usually on primetime.

MARTIN: So this is significant primetime programming. This is not marginal at all. It's very important to Univision. It's bottom line. So why is Grupo Televisa suing Univision?

Ms. MARTINEZ: It's a very complicated story that goes way back many, many years. But in a nutshell, what Televisa is arguing right now in court is that they do not trust Univision anymore. And you can go through court documents and it's really, really a complicated issue, but in a nutshell, what they want is to get out of this program license agreement which bounds Televisa to provide Univision with programming until 2017. So they want to get out to basically shop their stuff elsewhere and to have, say, Telemundo or other networks broadcasting their programming.

MARTIN: Is it because they don't feel they're getting enough money or is there some other issue? Because I mean, unfortunately, you know, it happens in life that sometimes we don't get paid what we would like to be paid. But is it that they feel that Univision has been dishonest with them in the way it has accounted for royalties or something of that sort?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Well, yeah. At the heart of the matter, it's a hundred-plus million dollar on so-called - on pay royalties. But to be honest, this is pretty much like a novella itself from Emilio Azcarraga Jean, the president of Televisa, pretty much coming out in defense to his dad, the late Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, whom he felt was tricked somehow by the new owners of Univision. Some people have even said that this is a personal vengeance of Emilio Azcarraga Jean to get what he thinks Univision stole his father.

MARTIN: How long is the trial supposed to last?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Well, I spoke to lawyers on both sides, and they are talking about three to four weeks, and it started in January 6, so it should be another couple of weeks.

MARTIN: What happens if Univision loses this programming?

Ms. MARTINEZ: This is going to be trouble for Univision. They have said that it will cost considerable damage, and I don't know exactly what the quote was but I know that they have said that this would hurt them. But what I also know is that should Televisa prevail in this trial, Univision has said that it will appeal. And they have said that even if they appeal, this would be years before they actually lose the programming. However, they are not really coming up with a concise plan to substitute or replace that programming.

MARTIN: Well, then it seems like the other issue here is that if Televisa feels that they aren't being paid enough or that they haven't been compensated adequately for the programming so far, it seems to me that they're looking for damages. If Univision is forced to pay a significant amount to Grupo Televisa, how big of a problem would that be?

Ms. MARTINEZ: They have actually said and originally said that this trial was over quote unquote "unpaid royalties." But in the opening remarks by Marshal Grossman, Televisa's lawyer, he was very clear to say that this is beyond these unpaid royalties, that basically what is at stake here is that Televisa has lost faith on Univision as partner. And this is what they are trying to use to appeal a jury to say, look, we cannot be bound in a contract until 2017 with someone we don't trust.

MARTIN: What about Univision stars like Christina(ph), Don Francisco and Jorge Ramos? These are household names in the United States, and it's my understanding that they all work for programs that are produced in the U.S. So what happens to them?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Absolutely nothing, and I think - you mentioned Jorge Ramos and his co-anchor, Maria Elena Salinas. They are huge assets for Univision. They have nothing to do with Televisa. Same goes with Christina, Don Francisco. These are, as you very well point out, household names, and they would be absolutely untouched by any decision in the trial with Televisa.

MARTIN: But is it possible, though, that Univision would expand its programming with them because these are American-based stars?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Absolutely, and I think Univision has already done that. Jorge Ramos has a Sunday show now competing with the main networks, political analysis show on Sundays called "Al Punto." Christina not only has her shows on Mondays but she has been doing a lot of things for Univision online, in radio. Don Francisco, of course, as you know, not only has a "Sabado Gigante," he now also has a Wednesday night show called "Don Francisco Presenta." So, yeah, I think Univision is very aggressively and strongly tapping into the current non-Televisa talent for its programming. Still, none of that makes up for the telenovelas.

MARTIN: And finally, Laura, this is a question where I'm asking you to speculate, so I apologize for that. But regardless of the outcome of the trial, what is the future of Spanish-language television in the U.S.? Do you think that its future is still strong or as the younger population is bilingual, as you are, is its appeal limited in the next generation?

Ms. MARTINEZ: That's a very, very interesting question, Michel. And yeah, I mean, I could speculate, but people have been predicting the demise of Spanish-language television for years. In the '60s or '70s, people wouldn't even bet a penny on Univision, saying this is not going to exist in the 1990s, and look how far it has come.

Of course, there is an increasing population of younger kids that are bilingual. But really, the bulk of the advertising dollars and the bulk of the ratings are still in Spanish-language television. There are still people who are going to migrate. They are still going to come to the U.S., and they are going to have a demand for Spanish-language television and for Spanish-language television that reminds them their home country, not television that is made in the U.S. I think there is a market, and it's going to be there for a long time.

MARTIN: Laura Martinez is contributing editor of the Hispanic Television Update Newsletter. She was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Laura, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.