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Q&A with Don Browne

5/12/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

Telemundo president Don Browne joined the company as chief operating officer 13 months ago. During his tenure, the NBC Universal-owned Spanish-language network has experienced a significant boost in ratings. Thanks, he says, to an in-house production strategy. Telemundo, though, remains a distant second in ratings and revenue to rival Univision. Browne is betting not only on a steady improvement of the Spanish-language broadcast business, but on the eventual takeoff of mun2, a cable channel for young Latinos. Much of mun2's programming has been revamped in the past year and ratings have soared, but from a tiny base. Securing sufficient cable and satellite distribution has been a significant hurdle and soon-to-launch competitor MTV Tr3s is joining an increasingly crowded field.

MCN: Last year you went into the upfront with poor ratings. This year they are significantly stronger. How do you go about convincing advertisers that this is not a fluke; that it’s the product of a deliberate strategy and not part of a normal hit-driven cycle of ups and downs?

Don Browne: That’s a great question. [Before last year’s upfront,] I had been on the job for a month, believed intensely that we had the right strategy [and] talked to an audience that clearly, I am sure, were wondering 'OK, what are you going to do next?’ It may have been a surprise to some people that I reaffirmed our strategy.

What I promised was performance and execution. That’s basically what I was armed with, an absolute belief that we were on the right track. When I literally left the stage, I got to work on creating the new architecture and putting this team together.

There has been a very direct cause and effect of the change in architecture, the level of talent, our focus and execution and you know the statistics. We’ve had ten months of consistent growth on what I call a direct cause and effect in terms of the development process, studio process and programming process. There has been a history of ups and downs where we would have a hit and then couldn’t sustain the momentum. The thing that is unique certainly over the last seven or eight months is that every daypart in primetime have been relatively strong or very strong.

MCN: You remain a distant second and that is not likely to change even in the most favorable of scenarios for another few years. How do you go about closing the gap or when might you be able to narrow that gap substantially?

DB: We actually have done that. Clearly, it depends on where you start from but we’re up over 40% to year and Univision is down 18% to 20%. So we are closing the gap. We have a very different business model than Univision. Univision is doing what they have always done. They are not reinventing themselves, and they continue to recycle Televisa product that is produced for another audience. They are not evolving, they are stuck in kind of an old model. Our model is very vibrant and responsive to the evolving tastes of a very unique market.

MCN: Would you be willing to buy Televisa telenovelas if you had the chance?

DB: I would totally have an open mind because Televisa does what they do very, very well, and they’ve been around for a long time. They are a very well-run company. They produce excellent product. We’d love to have a shot at some of their product, but we will continue without a doubt to differentiate ourselves by controlling our own destiny. We will never put the control of our destiny in someone else’s hands but that doesn’t mean if there is a potential relationship there we wouldn’t sit down and consider working with them to co-create product and talk to them about anything.

MCN: You talk often of English-language programming, but it is a tiny part of your business. Why bother so much with it when your bread and butter is, and will be, Spanish-language television?

DB: It is a game I believe you have to be in. This is a fertile area, and these are very aggressive consumers. They are trendsetters. There is a real sea change going on in the sense of young Hispanics getting a resurgence of pride and enjoying being Hispanic. We are dealing with a very dynamic, rapidly evolving population and we need to be in all these places.

MCN: A lot of the talk in the Spanish-language media about the immigration protests border on advocacy. Does that concern you?

DB: I think as long as it stays within the boundaries — and there are boundaries. I got into the business in 1967 because I was moved by the civil rights coverage of CBS and NBC in the mid to late sixties. Then I actually got to cover the civil rights movement in the South.

Working with those journalists, that were some of the best broadcast journalists in the world, there was a twinge of advocacy covering those stories that made those stories compelling. I think people have walked a pretty decent line. I am watching our coverage and I am very pleased with the professionalism and balance we have had.

Advocacy has always been around, and it is important that it be directed within the boundaries of the professional. It is not black and white. I think it is very grey.

We are going through a profound change in this country. The Hispanic population is only going to grow. It is profoundly exciting to be in television and be able to tell this story. This is one of the most important stories of our time. I think by and large people have done a pretty damn good job in keeping their passion within the boundaries of professionalism.

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