Affiliate Talk: Q&A with Univision Distribution Chief Tonia O'Connor

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As the top distribution executive at U.S. Spanish-language media leader Univision, president of distribution sales and marketing Tonia O'Connor heads a group that negotiates with myriad affiliates about an array of products from broadcast and cable network carriage, to video on demand, which Univision has tried to pioneer with its Hispanic audience, and the company's upcoming TV Everywhere initiative, Uvideos. MCN news editor Mike Reynolds recently surveyed the affiliate landscape with O'Connor, who learned the distribution trade at Gemstar TV Guide.

Multichannel News: Tonia, How many years with Univision now?
Tonia O'Connor: It'll be five years in January. When I met with people in the organization they had a view that cable operators were competitors. It really was an old school broadcast mentality. We have done a 180. [CEO] Randy Falco, [executive chairman]Haim Saban, executives at the highest levels of the company, they believe in and are extremely supportive of our distribution partnerships. We have to get the support, we have to provide the business plan, it has to be good business for us obviously, but it's amazing how much our company has evolved in that sense. We had some relationships, but the MVPDs are our most important customers.

MCN:You have deals for your three cable networks with Dish, AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS, and it was recently announced on your earning call that you have an agreement with Cablevision Systems. What is the status of your discussions?

TO: We have agreements with four of the top nine providers and discussions are underway with all of the large, the national distributors. We are beating our expectations.

MCN: What has been the reception to the novella, sports and news networks, the three primary drivers for Univision?

Tonia O'Connor

TO: Sports is very big, as you know, and our anchor content there is Mexican league soccer, which is the most popular sports content with the U.S. Hispanics.
But novellas are a phenomenon. It's really amazing when you think about it. I mean we were just talking about the Emmys and the different genres of programming that viewers are leaning into. I mean it's been nearly 50 years on the air in this country with our networks and they just continue to be a ratings success for us.

MCN: Is it a mix of current and archival fare?

TO: It's more of the older version, within the last decade. Now we program the network so that there is some synergy there with what we're doing on the broadcast networks. So if there are actors or earlier seasons of what's appearing now on Univision...
But the reason for the popularity, which I don't think a lot of people understand or appreciate is, that our content has not gone through the typical syndication window. It has not been seen in this country since it initially appeared on the broadcast network premieres. It didn't then go through a couple of different cable networks and then to DVD. So this is the first time that viewers actually have a time to relive the experience of watching it.

MCN: Or if they're younger, for the first time.
That's exactly right, I'm glad you said that because one of the subgenres with the novellas that is quite popular for us is teen novellas and there is a programming block for that on the novella network.

MCN: The news channel is a Mexican-based news operation...
It's on Dish and will launch on the others the beginning of next year. Most of the ramping will happen in 2013 in terms of the distribution.

MCN: Is that a function of making the channel better or in terms of making the news operation better?
It's from a prioritization perspective with the distributors and in terms of bandwidth availability. I believe we've had the success that we've had because we really do approach all of those efforts purely from the standpoint of a partnership. I mean, we don't ever want to be reduced to a commodity, we don't want to just be another network or another service and we take it very seriously the responsibility of trying to grow both of our businesses. I mean we're rolling out three new networks in an environment where distributors are trying to take away networks.

MCN: Speaking of expanding, you've recently added a number of senior executives to your team
Renee Plato joined us from Disney and is overseeing our digital efforts. Rob Thun joined us from AT&T and he is overseeing the deal team, which is both business affairs and the financial. Plus, he manages relationships with the national accounts.
What I love about it is that we've really assembled a group of people that have very diverse, yet very complementary, backgrounds and skill sets so it has really positioned us very, very well given the complexities of the marketplace now and the relationships that we have with the various distributors. Everybody really needs to be an expert on the content. I don't care which platform we're distributing on, it almost becomes insignificant or it's really about creating the best consumer experience that we can create working in partnership with the distributors.

MCN: Uvideos is part of that umbrella, a portal to the best and brightest across various Univision networks and content. What is its status?
It's in beta. We'll be launching it in the fall and we'll be promoting it on air. And again, that is about trying to deliver the best possible consumer experience that we can because again that's not an 'if,' that's just a 'when' and a 'how.' The demand is there, they want it.

MCN: This is your TV Everywhere moment, right?
Absolutely. We have a very robust portfolio of rights so that's less of a challenge for us I think versus other networks. But it's the content that makes the most sense for that platform. Not all the content does.

MCN: Does the TV Everywhere movement, push VOD to the backburner?
I don't think so. Everything that we make available to the consumer on a VOD basis, everything we make available to them on broadband through TV Everywhere we'll also be making that available to them through the set-top box. And as a viewer at different times you have different needs or you want to watch differently. I think if you're sitting in your house and you've got your big screen, beautiful TV you're going to sit and watch on the set- top box. Right? But if I'm somewhere remotely I'll watch on my laptop or I'll watch on my iPad, or phone. I mean it's the convenience factor, right?

MCN: When you and I first started talking about VOD, there was World Cup and other content. What has been the reception for that?
I continue to be optimistic about VOD. The challenge is that it has a very, very difficult user interface, and then the monetization is not there from an advertising perspective. Now some of the distributors, and Comcast is one of them, are being aggressive in rolling out dynamic ad insertions, so we are hopeful.
There's a third complexity or obstacle because there isn't a barker, a promotion window in Spanish because you have thousands of hours of content. The content that does best comes down to what's being promoted in the barker window. I mean that's a huge driver.

MCN: Where do things stand with the English-language news/lifestyle joint venture with ABC? Is there a digital component that will precede the linear network in time for the election?
The Disney team is going to be overseeing the distribution and the advertising, ad sales, so I'm not in a position to talk about the steps there.

MCN: In 2009, Univision was negotiating its first round of cash deals in exchange for retransmission rights. Do these deals expire in 2012?
Yeah, well the first time around there was a cliff, right? And we were very open about that with the entire marketplace. It was obvious because we went from being a pure must-carry to allow retransmission consent. So we had a cliff. That was a very interesting time in my life. But we no longer have a cliff and there are deal expirations all over the place. However, what I would say -- and this is really important because again this is the essence of what myself and my team are doing here -- is that because we are pursuing these partnerships we are in constant conversations, whether we're staring down the barrel at a renewal or not. The Dish deal was not done around renewal. That was Dish being opportunistic, identifying with the quality of the content, the importance of the content for the Hispanic viewer and wanting to leverage that to grow their business.

MCN: What is Univision's take on OTT?
We are very open to it. Again our view is that our number one priority is the consumer and we need to be everywhere that our consumers, our viewers are. The genie was let out of the bottle a long time ago and in order for us to maintain our relevancy in the marketplace and especially in light of the fact that our viewers over-index with digital devices and digital platforms, we absolutely have to be there. We launched with Hulu at the end of last year.

MCN: What's your sense of the increased competition in the space, with the upcoming launch of MundoFox? Comcast, NBCU, Telemundo becoming aggressive...
Well we certainly are watching it very closely. Fox and NBC are extremely, extremely good media companies. But we can't get distracted by it. We have to stay focused on what our mission is and what our strategy is, and continue to deliver on the needs and interests of our consumer. It's a young, sophisticated consumer that is very digitally savvy. As long as we continue to focus on that, I am very confident that we are going to continue to maintain the strong position that we have in the marketplace.

MCN: Does this in, an inverse way, emphasize the strength of Univision even more?
I think what it does is validate the opportunity in the overall marketplace with distributors and advertisers. And it also increases investment across the marketplace in this consumer. If you're in the business of servicing Hispanics, I think that's a great thing because it really elevates the profile of this consumer across the marketplace.