As it stands on the cusp of a highly touted $100 million IPO, with ratings laurels crowning its head, and snarky bloggage about its poorly performing pet project Fusion, Univision has got a wide open road ahead of it. The question is: Where is it going?
We know where it’s been – through a rose-colored corporate mythology that has taken it from humble beginnings in 1955, when founder Raul Cortez started a “Spanish international network” in San Antonio, to today as a multibillion dollar behemoth that calls itself a media company with a mission of informing, entertaining, empowering (and, left unsaid in their corporate-ese, selling to) Hispanic America.
But how will its self-proclaimed status as the top media gateway to the lucrative $1.3 trillion dollar market change as both Hispanic audiences diversify from primarily Spanish-dominant immigrants to savvy, English-dominant consumers? And how will an IPO’s public scrutiny play when shareholders and greater transparency and corporate responsibility requirements are thrown into the mix?
Univision has gotten used to flying under the radar a little. Some would say that it has always gotten a pass from the general market because it has primarily been Spanish language media.
Spanish-language media owned primarily by non-Hispanics, that is. Though it is constantly talking about its Hispanic empowerment bona fides, a quick look at Univision’s ownership paints a portrait of a business, like any other, run by Wall Street types looking to make a buck. Among them are billionaire Haim Saban, the Egyptian-born/Israeli-bred financier, and Madison Dearborn Partners, Providence Equity Partners, TPG Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners, who were recently characterized by the Wall Street Journal as “searching for an exit” from the media giant’s enormous debt. Especially so in the aftermath of a losing hundreds of millions on a pricey 2014 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament spend that failed to pay off and another sale effort that never materialized. Plus, arch-rival Telemundo, owned by NBCUniveral with Comcast as a corporate parent, is nipping at its heels.
But Univision’s flawless, community-serving image started changing as the internet enabled both national newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald, and independent bloggers and social media mavens, to spread stories about Univision’s missteps far wider than ever before.There was the drama that ensued in 2011 when Univision was accused of trying to wheel-and-deal Senator Marco Rubio to spike a story about a decades-old drug bust of his brother-in-law if Rubio agreed to appear on Al Punto, to potentially discuss immigration. (Before and since that incident, Univision staffers have come under fire for slamming Rubio, calling him “a mediocre politician” in 2008 when he was a political analyst for the network, and in 2013 when an Univision employee called him a “loser” on Facebook.)
Early this year the network made unflattering headlines when it’s long-time, award winning talk show host Rodner Figueroa referred to First Lady Michelle Obama as looking “like she’s from the cast of Planet of the Apes, the movie.” This incident served only to fan the flames of discontent by vocal critics in both traditional and social media who cited Figueroa’s comments as just the tip of an iceberg of sexism, racism and all manner of other offenses that usually don’t get much notice because they happen in Spanish.
The moment of truth is timed for shortly after Labor Day, but the run-up to the IPO might give us a sense of what kind of scrutiny Univision might be in line for. Spring and early summer of 2015 brought a barrage of critical coverage about its financial performance, its newest acquisitions and, of course, its political leanings. Politico hit hard at a sensitive spot – there are ongoing allegations that Univision is a shill for Democratic politics and shuts out Republicans, even Latino ones – with a huge story in May about the cozy relationship between the network and the Clintons.
“The relationship between the Clintons and Univision is deep — from owner Haim Saban’s unabashed support for Hillary Clinton’s election effort to a partnership between Univision and the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, to the network’s newscasts that have bashed Republicans and, most recently, praised Hillary’s new position on immigration — putting her squarely in line with the network’s stance on the issue,” wrote Hadas Gold and Marc Caputo.
Gold and Caputo fell into the common traps of reporting on the Hispanic community. They quoted Gabriela Domenzain, a liberal strategist who was a founding producer on Univision’s Sunday news show “Al Punto” and who ran Obama’s Hispanic media outreach in the 2012 election, saying “You have to go to Univision to get to Latino voters.” In fact, according to most research, the lion’s share of Hispanics consume their news in English.
But they did a thorough job connecting the Clinton dots. There’s the Univision and Clinton Foundation co-branded early childhood initiative Pequeños y Valiosos and the prolific fundraising by Saban, who has donated as much as $25 million to the Clinton Foundation, and whose wife sits on its board. Gold and Caputo also dug into the allegations that Univision is openly pro-Democrat, quoting Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Spanish-speaking Republican from Miami who said Univision needs to be more cautious, but that it mostly gets a pass in the media which another network wouldn’t enjoy if, for instance, Rupert Murdoch put his money and the power of his publications behind a specific candidate.
“He would be far more criticized and pilloried if he did something like that. Spanish-language networks probably don’t draw as much attention. But when you’re talking about Univision, it has high ratings. It does matter,” Curbelo said.
Still, not everyone recognizes a potential breach of journalistic ethics or a particular disconnect from the role of a news outlet when a network’s top-rated anchor serves as its de facto activist regarding an incendiary topic – in Univision’s case, Jorge Ramos and illegal immigration. Julio Varela, founder of the independent, BS-calling blog, Latino Rebels, takes a different view on the Univision-is-slanted-liberal storyline. “Well, but, what about, for instance, Glenn Greenwald?” he said. “I do believe there’s an unfair label at work here. We Latinos are seen as biased and as activists but when you look at it, there’s a lot of activist journalism going on in the English media. But you have to understand: mainstream snarky, sarcastic people are seen as witty. Latino people with opinions about their world, people with confidence and boldness, they are disruptive and ‘biased.’”
Varela sees this storyline is nothing more than a cop-out fomented by the politicians and their handlers who like to point to a bias as enough reason to not engage in the kinds of discussions that speak directly to issues that are important to Hispanics. And to date, there have been no other mainstream or English-language media that have tackled health, education, immigration and crime in a forum that speaks primarily to the Latino experiences with those issues.
Unfortunately the parrying back-n-forth has gotten to be a distraction to the news operation’s mission of informing their viewership. In the aftermath of the white-supremacist-driven massacre in Charleston, South Carolina and Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s speech in which he referred to Mexican immigrants as a collective group of rapists and murderers, Marc Thiessen, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, called Univision out for a meme equating Donald Trump to alleged murderer Dylan Roof. It had been posted on the Instagram account of Alberto Ciurana, the president of Programming and Content for Univision Networks.
“There’s a clear bias against Republicans in the media, but Univision isn’t just the media, it’s basically a Hispanic MSNBC,” Thiessen said, begging the question about whether that in and of itself isn’t a good reason for why a party trying to rebrand itself as Latino-friendly might want to make it a point to go on Univision.
Rooting out biases of all types – both perceived and actual – should probably be a big part of its moving-forward strategy, though a representative of the network committed only to an industry-wide need to do better. To the surprise and skepticism of many in both the Hispanic and African American communities, Univision recently announced acquisition of the black-experienced-focused news site The Root. The network positioned it as a diversification move that also helps The Root by retaining “its editorial voice and mission” while giving it “access to greater resources, including Univision’s digital production facilities and publishing infrastructure.”
It’s unclear whether this is a way to address criticisms about the preponderance of very light-skinned Hispanics on air and other signs of racial animus. What is obvious is that the upper echelons of the network’s leadership are not altogether reflective of their viewership. Of the fifteen executive leaders Univision identifies on its corporate website, roughly half appear to be of Hispanic descent. The company is led by Bronx native Randy Falco, a former NBC executive and CEO of AOL.
Corporate diversity aside, the network clearly needs something to get the spotlight back onto the fact that Univision’s straight-news reporting operations in its 127 owned and operated local TV stations and radio stations do actually deliver a significant amount of news and community service programming to millions of Latinos who don’t have the preference or fluency in English to get it elsewhere.
Aura Bogado, an editor at Colorlines.com and contributor to The Nation, who after Univision’s announcement that Don Francisco’s show Sabado Gigante would go off the air in September, published a compelling piece in The Guardian about how the jiggling girlies – and Don Francisco’s grabbiness – disgusted her as a child when the show aired in her immigrant family’s household. She said Univision will likely always have a place in the lives of Latinos, even those who are fully acculturated to mainstream English media.
“If Univision attempts to approach issues – either in Spanish or bilingually – that are relevant to everyone in a home, then I think there’d be generational watching like what you saw with ‘Jane the Virgin,’” Bogado said. “Families do trust Univision and that is powerful. I think of my aunt who hadn’t paid a lot of attention to Marco Rubio until she saw him on Univision. And though it was brief, he was speaking in Spanish about very Latino immigrant values like hard work and the importance of families and it resonated in a way that watching a Hillary Clinton speech with caption or an overdub can’t. This will come into play for many elections, and years, to come.”
These years may be bumpy with the increased scrutiny Univision will have to withstand as it morphs into a public company. Already Fusion, Univision’s joint venture with ABC/Disney, is something of a joke in the media world with catty blog posts such as the one by Gawker, “More People Work at Fusion Than Are Reading Its Most Popular Post,” underscoring its failure to thrive in a market already dominated by listicle-and-cat-video driven websites dedicated to Millennials. Univision also put up $130 million for a stake in El Rey, fimmaker Robert Rodriguez’ new network, which lost $72.3 million last year.
Fusion is the brainchild of former magazine publisher and Televisa executive Isaac Lee, who as Univision’s news chief had been implicated in l’affaire Rubio. Fusion’s cable audience is still too small to be measured by Nielsen. It suffered a staggering net loss of $35 million in 2014, with $63.4 million in operating expenses eating up $28.1 million in revenues, despite the well-calibrated hype and heavy presence of Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. But Fusion has been on a hiring spree, with 250 employees and offices in Miami, New York, Washington, D.C., Boulder, and Oakland. Lee remains confident, and told the New York Times: “I know exactly what I’m doing.”
Univision’s SEC filing for its IPO offered a rare glimpse at the company’s bottom line. MarketWatch notes that not only is Univision carrying a debt load of $10.6 billion since March 2015 (it’s hoping the IPO will generate funds to reduce its debt), it won’t offer dividends for the foreseeable future. What that means is that 20 cents of every dollar in sales goes to pay interest. According to David Lieberman at Deadline.com, “Last year Univision was barely profitable--it saw just $1.9 million in income on $2.9 billion in revenues. The good news is that the numbers are moving in the right direction. The top line was 10.8% vs. 2013, and although the company reported a $216.2 million profit that year it would have been a big loss without an unusual $464.4 million tax benefit. Univision lost $14.4 million on $2.4 billion in 2012.”
Rounding out the list of concerns is Univision’s high-risk exposure to content agreements with Grupo Televisa, the largest multi-media company in Latin America, which have been extended to at least 2030. It’s estimated that Televisa’s voting stake in Univision will increase to 22 percent from its current rate of just under 10 percent. And though there’s no guarantee that Televisa’s content will continue to be popular with Univision’s audiences for the next fifteen years, the current commitments stand to make Emilio Azcarraga Jean, the Mexican billionaire at the head of Televisa, the king of media in the whole of the Americas should the IPO go off without a hitch.
Lastly, it must be said, a $500 million lawsuit from Donald Trump for pulling out of airing the Miss USA pageant won’t help, financially at least, if the case ever gets to court.
Ultimately, Univision is banking on its viewers and content consumers to make the numbers work. It points to consistent ratings wins over the major networks – which, they say, illustrates that language is fluid and not as big of a future challenge as some think – as its gold standard for success.
“Today we are meeting the needs of this growing and diverse Hispanic audience that is young, bold, socially engaged and digitally savvy,” said Jessica Rodriguez, Univision’s chief marketing officer, who says it will continue to do so by listening to its audience. Univision, Rodriguez said, monitors ratings as well as social chatter, reporting and other conversations and metrics about the network’s performance on a daily basis to ensure that their audiences are delighted. “We get measured everyday…we have this daily scorecard, we hear everything,” Rodriguez said.
The message Univision is hearing, according to Rodriguez, is that they are on the right track. “Novelas are at the core of our strategy. Just as with news, music and sports, we are delivering on the passion points of our audiences. We know Latinos are passionate about everything and we are providing aspirational content that puts women in leadership and protagonist positions and develops the next generation of [nationally diverse] young stars for audiences to fall in love with,” Rodriguez said.
She suggested that Univision could “do better” in matters of communicating their non-partisan news offerings, racially diverse staffing and other criticisms of its content, but said the network is fundamentally devoted to a future much like its present: giving its audiences exactly what they want.
Whether they can continue do that and please shareholders remains to be seen.
Esther J. Cepeda is a journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.