Crossing the Lingual Divide


Eight years after he started Sí TV as a production company and dreamed of turning it into the nation’s first English-language network for young Hispanic-Americans, Jeff Valdez has suddenly found himself an overnight success.

Valdez, co-founder and chairman of Sí TV, will receive the prestigious Quasar Award from the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications. Valdez is being honored for his success in placing Sí TV on numerous cable and satellite systems last year, gaining two powerful media backers and developing fresh programming that appeals to viewers and advertisers.

<p>Jeff Valdez Vitals</p>

Current Position: Chairman of Sí TV

Previous Jobs: Janitor, drill-bit operator, rock and roll drummer, comedy club owner, standup comic, TV producer

Career Highlights: Touring with a rock band, running Comedy Corner club, producing Comedy Compadres TV showcase, organizing annual Latino Laugh Festival, creating The Brothers Garcia, launching Sí TV

“We’ve been watching Jeff over the years,” says Sheila Gilmore, a Charter Communications Inc. marketing executive and NAMIC board member, who nominated Valdez for the award. “It has been a banner year for him.”

Indeed, Sí TV, launched in late February 2004 with a “Speak English, Live Latin” tagline, has quickly emerged as a rising star with its mix of English-language music, comedy, cultural, talk, reality and other entertainment programming for young urban Latino viewers. The startup network has landed 9.5 million cable and satellite homes in just over a year’s time, thanks mostly to carriage deals with Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network.

“We’re really going after a younger audience with an Hispanic base,” Valdez says. “It’s the emerging market … Our audience is really early adopters.”

Recently, Sí TV secured a crucial digital slot on Time Warner Cable’s cluster of New York City metro area systems, covering most of the city and parts of its northern and western suburbs. The network also just launched on Comcast in south Florida’s heavily Latino Miami-Dade County.

Cable executives give much of the credit to Valdez, a comedian, musician, producer and entrepreneur who grew up in a poor section of Pueblo, Colo., and now lives in Beverly Hills. The youngest of nine siblings, he mowed lawns, collected trash, built mobile homes, worked as a janitor and labored in a drill-bit factory before setting his sights on the entertainment world.

A drummer like his father, Valdez toured the country with several rock bands for a decade before settling down in Colorado Springs and opening a comedy club in the 1980s. He started doing standup and eventually followed friends to Los Angeles, where he used profits from his comedy club to start producing Hispanic TV comedy programs and such events as the annual Latino Laugh Festival.

“The perception in the marketplace was that Hispanics only have Hispanic friends and know only Hispanics and marry only Hispanics,” Valdez says. But, he says, “If you go Spanish, you immediately lose half your audience.”

That production work led to Sí TV’s first big crossover hit, The Brothers Garcia, for Nickelodeon in fall 2000. Inspired by Valdez’s own experiences growing up in Pueblo, the series has won several awards as the first English-language sitcom with an all-Latino cast. It has also helped Valdez line up support for his fledgling network with his impassioned appeals to media executives.

“Jeff’s a force of nature himself,” says Roger Keating, president of Time Warner Cable Los Angeles, which now carries Sí TV on its digital tier. “The intensity of his belief in the concept for his channel is different from [that of other startup network executives]. It comes through in the way he speaks and acts.”

Now, four-and-a-half years later, Valdez runs a full-time network with a programming lineup that includes a mix of original and acquired series and movies, shown in eight-hour cycles, three times a day and much of it produced in HDTV. The network, which developed eight original series in 2004, aims to do the same this year.

“You don’t have to be Latino to like [Sí TV’s] programming,” says Eric Brown, senior vice president of operations in Charter’s western division, which is negotiating to add Sí TV to its digital roster. “It crosses over. It appeals to a cross-section of cultures.”

“It really has cut through the clutter,” says Keating. “[Valdez] locked in on the concept of the unmet need in the acculturated Hispanic community long before anybody else. And he’s delivered on that vision.”

Unlike most new independent cable networks, Sí TV has also picked up major media investors. In a $60 million financing round, the network landed Time Warner and EchoStar as equity investors last April, giving it enough funding “for a long time,” according to Valdez.

Moreover, Sí TV has lined up a hefty number of major advertisers for a fledgling cable channel, including Microsoft, adidas, McDonald’s, Burger King, Sears, Wal-Mart Stores, General Motors, Sony Music, Earthlink, Victoria’s Secret and the U.S. Army, as well as several movie studios. In fact, the response from corporate sponsors has been so strong that network executives planned two general sales presentations during the upfront ad season this year, one for general cable advertisers and the other for Hispanic advertisers.

“We’ve already gotten early orders this year,” Valdez says. “We had zero advertisers last year. Now we’re walking in with 30.”

With the network’s initial momentum, Valdez is shooting to put Sí TV in 13 million to 14 million multichannel households by the end of 2005. Beyond that, his goal is to place the network in 25 million homes after five years.

Sí TV’s supporters think its success is a lock. “There are very few channels doing what Jeff is doing,” Gilmore says. “With the Hispanic population growing exponentially, it could potentially be a basic [cable] network.”