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With Comcast's backing, Telemundo ready to compete

Cesar Conde, the head of Comcast-owned Telemundo network, peppers his conversation with references to popular American cable shows Homeland and Breaking Bad, and says it feels like a new era in Spanish-language TV.

Cesar Conde, the head of Comcast-owned Telemundo network, peppers his conversation with references to popular American cable shows Homeland and Breaking Bad, and says it feels like a new era in Spanish-language TV.

There is, Conde said, "a tectonic shift taking place in Hispanic media."

And Philadelphia's Comcast - which acquired the also-ran Telemundo network as part of its $30 billion deal for NBCUniversal in 2011 - is aiming to be a big part of it.

The nation's cable giant, with tentacles all over the media landscape, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to take on the No. 1 Spanish-language network, Univision, by developing faster-paced Americanized dramas, locking up the TV rights to World Cup Soccer into the 2020s, and launching live local newscasts in big TV markets, such as Philadelphia.

The winner of this pitched TV battle for eyeballs will gain the largest access to a fast-growing Hispanic market that is expected to account for 40 percent of the U.S. household formations over the next decade and grow to 77 million Hispanics by 2030 from today's 57 million.

"Comcast isn't investing into Telemundo because they love Mexicans," said Alex Nogales, CEO of the advocacy group National Hispanic Media Coalition. "They are doing it because it was a great business proposition."

Added Nogales: "Telemundo has been the stepchild of Hispanic media for many years. Now they have a big sugar daddy and they can compete."

The results have been impressive so far: Telemundo has narrowed Univision's 2.4 million prime-time viewer lead in 2011 to 923,000 viewers this year, according to Nielsen figures provided by Telemundo. This is for weekdays.

The Nielsen numbers also show that Univision's average weekday prime-time audience has fallen to 2.6 million viewers this year from 3.7 million in 2011, which partly reflects the broad declines in TV viewership across the industry.

Telemundo's prime-time audience, moreover, grew to 1.7 million from 1.3 million over the same period. Telemundo officials believe they are taking Hispanic market share from rival Univision.

Telemundo attributes the positive ratings trends to its 10 p.m. "super series," one of the new faster-paced American-style dramas. Among the most popular has been El Senior de Los Cielos ("Lord of the Skies") about a narco-trafficker who comes back from the dead to seek revenge on enemies, which aired its third season this year.

Nogales, of the Hispanic media coalition, said that Telemundo "hit the jackpot" with the shows, comparing them to The Godfather movies with antiheroes.

Now solid at the 10 p.m. time slot, Telemundo is targeting 8 p.m. with a "bio-musical," or a fictionalized musical drama. The current one is of Cuban salsa queen Celia Cruz.

"It is basically changing the model of what Spanish-language programming looks like," said Telemundo spokeswoman Michelle Alban.

Felix Gutierrez, professor emeritus at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said that Telemundo appears to have found a niche by producing Americanized shows that connect with Hispanics instead of importing telenovelas from Mexico.

Univision spokeswoman Esther Tejeda said Univision remains popular with audiences and beats the English-language networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox on some nights. One recent Saturday, she said, "Univision ranked as the No. 3 network," beating NBC and Fox.

Univision Communications Inc. - a privately held company whose owners include billionaire Haim Saban, Madison Dearborn Partners, Providence Equity Partners, TPG, and Thomas H. Lee Partners - recently postponed its initial public offering.

Univision's board postponed the IPO until early 2016 because of the poor performance of media-company stocks and a weak market for first-time share sales, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal.

The programmer, which includes Spanish-language cable networks and digital properties, went private in 2007 in a $13.7 billion debt-laden deal and its partners have been seeking an exit.

In a filing with regulatory authorities, Univision reported $2.9 billion in revenue and $900,000 in profits for 2014. Bloomberg estimates that the Univision TV broadcast network generated $1.1 billion in advertising revenue in 2014. Telemundo had $457 million, a 35 percent jump from 2011, according to Bloomberg.

Comcast's success with Telemundo has a precedent. Steve Burke, the former Comcast cable executive who heads the company's NBCUniversal unit, has turned around the over-the-air NBC TV network. Conde, a former Univision executive, is now chairman of Telemundo Enterprises and reports to Burke. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has mentioned the rise of Hispanic television in the same breath as the rapid growth in the highly profitable Universal theme parks.

In the Philadelphia region, more than 20 NBC10 news trucks now cruise the highways and rowhouse neighborhoods with both the NBC logo and Telemundo's stylized red "T" - part of a "duopoly" strategy of NBC10 and Telemundo sharing resources.

Over the last two years, Philadelphia affiliate Telemundo62 has launched slick Spanish-language local newscasts by piggybacking on NBC10's camera crews and coordinating news coverage, beginning with a 9:15 a.m. editorial meeting.

This was evident one recent morning at NBC10's office in Bala Cynwyd.

Telemundo62 reporter Christian Cazares and three Telemundo62 news managers joined about a dozen NBC10 staffers in the morning meeting run by vice president of news Anzio Williams.

Williams listened to weatherman Glenn "Hurricane" Schwartz forecast record highs and to early takes from producers on developing new stories, concluding with, "We should kill it on weather."

Williams then turned to the Telemundo62 staffers to ask what they saw as their stories. Cazares said he was covering a protest rally for unionized janitors whose contract was about to expire. He also was looking into an alleged child molestation in Atlantic City.

Cazares' story on the janitors - many of them chanting in Spanish as they protested outside corporate offices in Chester County - aired on Telemundo62 newscasts at 5:30, 6, and 11 p.m. - which together have a viewership of about 21,000 a night, according to the network. Cazares said he was interested in the story because "we have a lot of Hispanics working as janitors."