Crossing the Border

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Starting Feb. 19, an estimated 6 million residents of Mexican origin living in Texas will be able to attend live broadcasts of several Spanish-language TV shows in cities such as Harlingen, Laredo, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio.

The promotional tour, staged by Monterrey, Mexico-based Grupo Multimedios, will include live broadcasts of Gruperísimo, a Mexican regional music series, and general entertainment shows Vivalavi and Acábatelo.

The company is a relatively new entrant in the marketplace, and after decades of steady ratings and advertising growth in Mexico, is finally setting its sights on this side of the border by partnering with the nation’s largest cable operators. Not unlike other Mexico-based television programmers, Grupo Multimedios is zeroing in on viewers of Mexican origin, who make up the large majority of the U.S. Hispanic population.

“Over 65% of Hispanics in the U.S. are of Mexican origin; and these are Mexicans who watch a lot of television,” said Guillermo Franco, general manager of the company’s television division Multimedios Television.

The privately held media conglomerate kicked off its U.S. incursion in the fall of 2008, when it rolled out two networks — general entertainment Multimedios and music oriented TeleRitmo — on Comcast in Houston. In December, Multimedios launched on over 15 Time Warner Cable systems in Texas, including San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Corpus Christi. The Group said it is in talks with Comcast to enter Chicago, the nation’s sixth largest Hispanic market. A Comcast executive in Chicago was not available for comment at deadline.

Despite a gloomy outlook for the TV advertising market, Grupo Multimedios’ expansion plans are so ambitious that its U.S. representatives are bracing for a busy 2009: “We hope to secure distribution in the top five cable systems in the country,” said Gustavo Mena, a former distribution executive at CBS Cable and Telemundo/NBC who is leading Multimedios’ distribution effort from the company’s offices in Florida.

Established in 1933 in the Northern industrial hub of Monterrey, Grupo Multimedios has grown to become one of Mexico’s largest media groups. It owns and operates 37 AM and FM radio stations; 9 broadcast TV stations in Mexico; 12 local, regional and national newspapers; two national magazines and a 150,000 subscriber cable operator, featuring video, voice and data services. In addition, the group owns an outdoor advertising firm, several concert venues and amusement parks.

Although the company does not disclose financials, it says it employs 6,000 people (out of which about 600 are in TV) and between 35% and 40% of its total revenue comes from radio and TV broadcasting.

Grupo Multimedios’ foray into the U.S., at least for now, is focused solely on television and it calls for leveraging its three main networks: family oriented general entertainment outlet Multimedios Television; Mexican regional music TeleRitmo; and the recently launched Milenio Televisión, a 24/7 all Spanish-language news network, which premiered October 2008 in Mexico.

Pitching itself as the third largest producer of Spanish-language programming in Mexico (after Grupo Televisa and TV Azteca) Grupo Multimedios seeks to focus on the Mexican audiences by giving them fare from their home country as opposed to made in the United States. “These channels are a lifeline for [these people,] and they are very loyal consumers of our programming,” said Franco.

The target audience is too large to ignore. Even in markets like New York City, where Mexicans have historically been a minority, their population is expected to explode. According to the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, Mexicans are poised to become the largest Hispanic group in 2024, surpassing Puerto Ricans, who account for one of every three Latinos in the city.

According to the same data, while the total Latino population in New York City grew 2.5% in 2007, up from the previous year, the Mexican population rose almost 10%. Overall, Mexicans account for an estimated one-third of the total Hispanic population.

With the mantra of “100% original. 100% Mexican,” Multimedios broadcasts over 140 hours a week of original programming, including news, children’s shows, music and sports. And with small variations, its programming is similar to other commercial programmers in the country, even tapping into former Televisa talent as TV hosts.

One of the broadcaster’s highest-rated shows, Acábatelo, features Mexican showman Mario Bezares, a former Televisa personality who in the late 1990s was arrested in the presumed murder of his friend and TV co-host Paco Stanley outside a Mexico City restaurant. Bezares was acquitted of the charges after spending more than a year in prison, and even now jokes about his ordeal. The comedy-oriented Improvisando, Memo Tivo features yet another former Televisa talent, long time comedian Memo Ríos.

Although the U.S. cable push is recent, the company is not new to the American market. In the past few years it had been renting a series of class A low-power stations in Texas, which according to Franco, was an effort to understand the basics of doing television on this side of the border.

Part of that experience, for instance, had to do with the requirements to include children’s programming, something that led to the creation of El Gallo, a show created specifically for children ages 2 to 7 who live in the U.S. and are starting to learn English. “El Gallo is one example of the programming we can do to target the specific U.S. audiences,” said Franco.

Currently, Multimedios’s U.S. signal contains over 90% of the regional network’s programming. The company includes some shows it had previously aired, which will be added only for the U.S. Franco said there are plans to develop more programming designed specifically for U.S. audiences, but for now it will mostly rely on shows that have already become favorites in Mexico.

Despite the enthusiasm, Multimedios is well aware of at least one major handicap in entering the U.S. market. While most of its shows — specifically its ratings-buster newscast TeleDiario — might be well known in Northern Mexico, Mexicans from the southern states have likely never even heard of the network.

“There are a lot of people there from the south [of Mexico] who are likely not familiarized with our programming,” said Franco.

To address this concern, Multimedios said it intends to further study the demographics and tweak its programming so that it can be relevant and of interest to all Mexicans, whether they are from Chiapas or Tijuana.

The promotional tour will also provide more exposure for the network.

“When people think of Mexican television, they think of Televisa and TV Azteca. But there are cities [in Mexico] in which we compete head to head with them, and even beating them in audiences now and then,” said Franco.

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