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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
TV 21 Takes Aim At Young Latinos
Spanish-language station has big plans for growth
By Chris Cobbs | Sentinel Staff Writer
May 26, 2003
Little more than a week into her TV career, Linsley Rivas is no longer terrified or afraid of making a fool of herself.
Rivas, 18, is preparing for her role as a nightly news reporter on TV 21, a new Spanish-language station that is aggressively entering the Central Florida market.
"We're recording interviews daily, and I'm trying to develop a natural look on camera," said Rivas, a Caracas, Venezuela, native and Valencia Community College student. She had been working as a receptionist until TV 21 general manager Mario Ragazzo noticed her and offered her a job.
Starting in August, TV 21 will begin airing a Monday-through-Friday evening half-hour newscast. The nightly news will be the first locally produced programming for the station, an affiliate of the Mexico City-based Azteca America network.
The network, which went on the air in Orlando last July, is targeting a young audience, between 18 and 34, the fastest-growing segment of the booming Hispanic population.
The station's mix of reality TV and sports, along with local news, is loosely patterned after the Fox network formula for hooking young viewers, said Jorge Rossi, TV 21 president and chief operating officer.
TV 21 was Azteca America's first Florida outlet, and Rossi said he hopes to make it the flagship station of the expanding network, which is now in 24 American markets. Another 20 stations are scheduled to come online by the end of the year.
The low-power UHF station now reaches an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 households within a 30-mile radius of its Pine Hills transmitter, Rossi said.
Programming is beamed from Mexico City via satellite to TV 21's local partner, Century III at Universal Studios, and then via microwave to the Pine Hills transmitting tower.
Century III, which serves as the control center and adds commercials and promos to the TV 21 fare, hopes to build on its ties to the fledgling station by producing a local talk show, said president Ross Cibella.
"We would like to see our relationship develop into a long-running venture," he said. "This is our first opportunity to actually operate a TV station 24 hours a day."
Previously, Century III has specialized in special effects, graphics and other production work for numerous movies, including Grizzly Adams, and TV programs such as House Calls.
Century III and TV 21 were brought together in January by Paul Mean, vice president and general manager of Universal Studios' Florida Production Group.
"Jorge came to me looking for a network operations center, and I knew that Century III had much of the equipment he would need," Mean said.
"Along with Azteca, they're talking about bringing original production work here, and that's the bigger picture stuff we're interested in. We think it's important to get in bed early with a station and network that could be a big player in the business."
Vital to the success of the new Century III-TV 21 venture is landing a place on Brighthouse Networks, which has taken over management of the former Time Warner cable system in Central Florida.
A spot on the local cable system could quadruple the station's audience and enable it to reach about a third of the area's Hispanic audience, Rossi said. About 323,000 Hispanics live in Central Florida.
The station is trying to open negotiations with executives at Brighthouse, which now carries four Spanish-language channels on its basic and standard packages.
"We have no comment about specifics relating to a planned meeting," said Brighthouse spokesman Brian Craven.
"However, we recognize the diversity of our customer base with a variety of programming choices."
Officials at Central Florida's established Spanish-language stations said they welcome competition with TV 21 and view the presence of the new station as a further sign that the local Hispanic market is strong and poised for expansion.
"We wish them the best," said Laura Santos, general manager at Telemundo affiliate WTMO-Channel 40.
Among the challenges faced by TV 21 is adding diversity to its programming, which is mostly Mexican in content, Santos said. WTMO's lineup includes soap operas from Puerto Rico and Colombia, programming that may have more appeal for Central Florida's predominantly Puerto Rican audience.
TV 21 may also have trouble matching the depth of WTMO's new evening newscast, due to launch in the fall with a staff of 10, Santos said.
Like Santos, a top Univision executive said competition with TV 21 reflects the strength of the local Hispanic market.
"We are the oldest Spanish-TV format in Orlando, and we're all for seeing Azteca America coming here," said Antonio Guernica, general manager of Univision Orlando WVEN-Channel 26 and Telefutura Orlando. "As the leader in this market, we don't plan any changes because of the new competition."
Univision enjoys the position of being the 800-pound gorilla in Hispanic television, with more than 70 percent of the global audience, said Fernando Lopez, a consultant with Los Angeles-based Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consulting firm.
"Azteca America has been most successful in California and Texas, which have a large Mexican audience," said Lopez.
"It may take awhile for Azteca to successfully compete with Univision and Telemundo."
In Azteca's favor is a blend of news, sports, talk shows and prime-time soap operas, or telenovelas.
The telenovela -- which typically charts the romantic involvement of a hunky guy and his sweetheart over a six-month season -- is especially key to TV 21 and Azteca's target audience of young Hispanics, Lopez said.
"The Hispanic demographic is a young one," he said. "Overall, the median age of Hispanics is 25.8, and one-third of Hispanics are 18 or younger."
Azteca is joining with Telemundo and Univision in chasing a bigger chunk of American television's advertising dollars. Between 2 percent and 5 percent of those dollars go to Spanish-language television, meaning 95 percent of U.S. advertisers aren't on Hispanic television.
But, as the Hispanic population swells, the market should become more attractive to advertisers, leading to escalating competition among the Spanish networks, said Lopez.
Azteca America is a subsidiary of TV Azteca S.A. de C.V., a Mexico City-based business that is the world's second-largest producer of Spanish-language broadcasts.
Rossi can barely restrain himself from bold predictions about the future of Azteca America and TV 21.
"We expect the network's U.S. gross advertising sales to surpass $500 million in the next two years," he said. "Within three years, we expect to pass $750 million, which would put the network ahead of its sales in Mexico."
For the Orlando market, his aim is to double its viewership in the next year and expand locally produced programming, although the specifics haven't been worked out.
In addition, Rossi wants to lure an array of local Hispanic advertisers, including car dealers, furniture stores, supermarkets and department stores.
"We are going to challenge the local stations," he said. "We want to have superior programming."
As the station prepares to launch its evening newscasts in August, Rivas continues to work with producer and camera man Daniel Dapena.
"Danny has worked with me on holding the mike at the right angle and not too close when we interview someone," Rivas said.
"I'm getting experience and having fun. It's all very exciting."
Although Rivas is young and largely untrained, Ragazzo said the station has high expectations because she is smart, spontaneous and photogenic.
"I'm hoping my career will grow along with the station," Rivas said.
"I want the viewers to like me and I want to make the station proud."