The New, New Henry C

How a fallen idol became a rising star.

July 2000By Comments

At midtown Manhattan’s posh Cipriani restaurant, spotlights skipped across a crowd of one thousand invited guests before landing on Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “Welcome to the Latin explosion!” Cisneros exclaimed, as giant screens flashed pictures of Hispanic stars of film, sports, music, literature, and fashion. His face could have been up there too, as the most famous Hispanic politician in the United States. But since a personal scandal forced his resignation from politics in 1996, he’s carved a new role for himself: television executive. As the president and chief operating officer of Los Angeles-based Univision Communications, Cisneros is the lead pitchman for what is the nation’s largest Spanish-language TV broadcaster and the fastest growing broadcaster of any kind. In mid-May he and other Univision executives took the stage at Cipriani during the week when all the major networks unveil their programming for the new season and make their pitch to advertisers and the media. Last year Univision raked in a record $425 million in ad sales during this period. This year it’s obviously hoping for more, so the network rolled out its 2000-2001 lineup with flash and fanfare, including a guest appearance by singer Julio Iglesias. Wine flowed freely at the lavish lunch that followed.

Cisneros, though, was too busy to sit down and eat. Reporters on deadline for Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and the Miami Herald had lots of questions. After they dashed off to file their stories, he and I sat down for a one-on-one interview—a rarity, since he and other Univision employees usually are barred from talking one-on-one to the news media by Univision chairman A. Jerrold Perenchio. One of the richest men in America and a behind-the-scenes political power broker in Southern California, Perenchio isn’t Hispanic, doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, and despite the fact that he’s a media mogul, steers clear of the media and orders his subordinates to do the same. But the spotlight just seems to follow the charismatic Cisneros. Sitting in a wing chair at a conference room upstairs at Cipriani, Cisneros sipped a Coke and deftly answered questions about every aspect of Univision’s business.

Given his boss’s orders about staying low-profile, the 53-year-old Cisneros—who looked trim in his jet-black suit, white shirt, and blue-and-yellow tie, with only a few touches of gray in his wavy black hair—tried to dissuade me from focusing on him. These days, he’d much rather talk about Univision, which has its roots in his hometown. What began in 1961 as a single Spanish-language station in San Antonio has blossomed into a national media company with 19 owned-and-operated stations, 32 broadcast affiliates, more than 1,000 cable affiliates, and a sizable audience. At a time when NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox are losing viewers, fifth-ranked Univision is adding them, especially in the coveted under-50 demographic. At last count, the network had 82 percent of the Spanish-language prime-time market share among adults 18- to 49-years-old and 92 percent among teenagers. It trounces its closest competitor, the Miami-based Telemundo network, by providing a mix of news, sports, game shows, cheesy variety shows like Sabado Gigante, talk shows, and telenovelas, the top-rated serial love sagas that air five nights a week. Its prime-time audience ranks ahead of Time Warner’s WB and Viacom’s UPN as well as cable channels such as HBO and ESPN. “Our audiences have never been larger,” Cisneros bragged, no doubt proud that the greatest concentration of Univision stations are back home. Four of its top ten markets are in Texas (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and McAllen), and there are stations or affiliates in seven other Texas cities (Austin, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Fort Worth, Laredo, Lubbock, and Victoria).

Certainly, Univision owes some of its success to Cisneros. When he joined the company as president in 1997, his first priority, he said, was to make the Spanish-language network “indispensable” to mass marketers. “A lot of advertisers haven’t understood the importance of the Latino market,” he explained. His job is to make sure they do. He described his role at Univision as a kind of “all-purpose coordinator for the chairman.” He spends the largest chunk of his time developing relationships with advertisers—and there are more every week. Among the big companies plunking down big bucks to advertise in Spanish are AT&T and MCI, two of the network’s largest advertisers last year. Some industries, such as financial services, have been slow to come around, but Cisneros reported promising conversations with Charles Schwab, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. “We worked it very hard,” he said. And more companies, he added, are waking up to the fact that “any strategy for reaching American consumers must include Latinos.”

That’s because the Hispanic population has the growth patterns that make advertisers salivate: for one, it is growing six times faster than the national rate. The average Hispanic household has 3.6 people, compared with 2.7 people for total U.S. households. Moreover, Hispanics’ purchasing power is expected to more than double over the next decade, from $443 billion this year to $939 billion in 2010. Sales of new vehicles, homes, and computers to Hispanics far outpace U.S. totals. And since 90 percent of Hispanics speak Spanish at home, Cisneros says that Spanish-language TV—not bilingual programming—is the best way to reach that growing audience. That’s why Univision made the decision several years ago to not allow a word of English on air. “We’ve decided that we will be pure Spanish, quality Spanish,” Cisneros said. “That is our company’s cachet.”

And people are watching in record numbers. Univision now attracts more male viewers during prime time than ESPN, more 12- to 24-year-olds than MTV, and seven times more adult news viewers than CNN. Those statistics have given Univision more leverage with advertisers; over the past several years, it has raised its advertising rates to be more in line with what English-language TV networks charge. “We’re looking for parity,” Cisneros said. “A Hispanic family ought to be worth as much to an advertiser as any other family.” More so, he added, because they tend to have larger families and spend more on staples such as food and clothing. The strategy is paying off: Last year Univision’s net profits hit $80.9 million, up from $9.9 million in 1998, on $693.1 million in revenues. The growth continued in this year’s first quarter when net income zoomed 214 percent to $20.7 million and revenues jumped 32 percent to $181.5 million.

Not everyone, though, is impressed with the success of Univision or the performance of Cisneros, who has been called a figurehead and a front man for Perenchio. Critics have accused the network of pandering to unassimilated, newly arrived immigrants with titillating telenovelas and “dumb” shows that aren’t relevant to upscale, bilingual Latinos whose families have been in the U.S. for generations. Much of Univision’s programming still originates abroad and is distributed to the network through a deal with Mexico’s largest TV network, Televisa. And Perenchio’s media gag order came under fire from reporters covering the event in New York. Wasn’t it hypocritical, one asked, for a media company to refuse to allow the media regular access to its key people? “It is Mr. Perenchio’s policy, and I think it’s legit,” Cisneros replied. “We like to function as a team. There are very few media companies that have kept their core team together as this one has.”

As for Univision’s programming, Cisneros can fairly boast that it won two Emmys last year—the first for any Spanish-language network. The new season has an even greater number of quality shows, with thirteen hours of U.S.-produced programming, including its first sitcom. Estamos Unidos (“United Always”) is the story of a Latino family adjusting to American life; it stars Miss Universe 1996, Alicia Machado, and the well-known Mexican actor Carlos Bonavides. “We’re going to see if this very American format can work in Spanish,” said Mario C. Rodriguez, Univision’s president of entertainment. The network will also launch its own version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire this year. Called A Millón! (“Going for a Million”), the show won’t be a carbon copy of the popular ABC show but will highlight the behind-the-scenes stories of the contestants and their families. And the company will invest $10 million to $15 million in its new Web site, which will feature round-the-clock news, entertainment, sports, and e-commerce. Cisneros promised it will be the “finest, high-quality Internet site in the Spanish language.”

Cisneros’ own ratings are recovering from the government’s messy four-year, $10 million investigation into his personal life. Last September he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of lying to the FBI about the hush money he had paid to his former mistress Linda Medlar Jones. Cisneros agreed to pay a $10,000 fine but received no jail time or probation; Jones was freed last fall from prison after serving 18 months of her 42-month sentence. Cisneros’ political fall from grace hasn’t been a big deal in Los Angeles, where he now makes his home (he and his wife, Mary Alice, still own their house in San Antonio and have close Texas ties). Just a week after the guilty plea, a Los Angeles Times columnist suggested that Cisneros could be a big-city mayor once again, this time in L.A. His name was also floated recently on the short list of candidates for school superintendent. “I have no plans to be in elected politics,” he told me, careful not to use the word “ever.”

Indeed, where news is concerned, Cisneros sounds every bit like a TV exec instead of a pol who made his share of headlines in his day. During the Elian Gonzalez controversy, Univision was the first network to receive and air a videotape made by the boy’s Miami relatives. Other networks picked it up, and critics weighed in about the ethics of broadcasting propaganda. Cisneros, though, defended it as the correct judgment. “It’s awfully hard to make the case that, in the heat of this battle, you have the tape of this little boy and don’t air it,” he says. “By the way, it was compelling television.” Spoken like a true TV junkie.

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