Silberwasser Steers Telemundo To New Heights

Six Months in, Discovery Veteran Making Changes at Lightening Speed
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Telemundo has salivated at the opportunity to topple its chief rival, Univision, in the ratings for many years.

Twists and turns in programming rights, and programming strategies, across the networks have left Telemundo firmly in the No. 2 position. But things are changing at lightning speed at the NBCUniversal-owned Spanish-language broadcast network.

It has invested heavily in local and national news in an era where manila folders filled with COBRA information are more common than offer letters. At the same time, Telemundo has hit its stride with so-called “super series” that shed the traditional start-to-finish telenovela story arc by introducing a second, or even third, season — something not seen since the days of Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

Perhaps most importantly, Telemundo and its sister properties are now the U.S. rights holders of FIFA World Cup coverage in Spanish. Telemundo also happens to be the Spanish-language home of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — part of a $1.2 billion investment by NBCUniversal in securing the rights to what potentially could be a ratings and revenue windfall for parent Comcast.

It therefore stands to reason that Luis Silberwasser may be the luckiest television executive in North America. Or he may be the most challenged, given the heavy expectations presented to him and his team. Just six months into his role as Telemundo Network president, it is evident that Silberwasser is ready for battle and is leading the attack on Telemundo’s top rival, Univision.

“I am super excited about the possibilities,” Silberwasser said. “I’m super excited about being here at Telemundo. It is a very different company than Discovery, and we have very different programming genres. Here, at Telemundo, we are running a big broadcast network that has general entertainment, from prime-time programming based on scripted series to our sports offerings. The combination of those genres makes this job a challenge … and it makes this job exciting. Telemundo is a challenger, and we have a tremendous opportunity to challenge.”

BEAUTIFUL TRANSITION

Silberwasser’s lone connection to Telemundo 20 years ago — or to Hispanic television, for that matter — would likely have been a 60-second commercial for Secret or Oil of Olay. From 1991 to 1997, he was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble Co., overseeing the two beauty brands.

His entry into Hispanic television came in late 2003, when he joined Discovery Communications as its senior vice president of strategic planning in the international division. Now, armed with a Harvard MBA and a Bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech, he has “gone against the stream” by strengthening Telemundo’s news operations.

“I want to give credit to where credit is due,” Silberwasser said, “and [NBCUniversal CEO] Steve Burke and [NBCUniversal chairman of Hispanic enterprises and content] Joe Uva felt as I did that, given the importance of Telemundo as a voice for the Hispanic viewer, we needed a much stronger effort to connect to the community and to connect to the Hispanic marketplace.

“We are investing in dual anchors, and [the opportunity to provide] breaking news,” he added. “We are investing in our weather coverage. The network has completely supported this, and we’ve even changed our network programming schedule so we can have a local newscast at 5:30 p.m.”

Silberwasser said he is also pleased with the ratings growth at Telemundo’s weekday morning show, Un Nuevo Día, following a six-year period that saw a name change from ¡Levántate!, a shift in production from Telemundo Puerto Rico to Miami-based studios, and the addition of longtime telenovela actress Adamari López and veteran newscaster Ana Maria Canseco — one of the original hosts of Univision’s Despierta América morning show.

“We have a ways to go, but I think we have a tremendous opportunity,” Silberwasser said. “Un Nuevo Día is a still a news and entertainment morning show, but we are providing much more information than ever before. We have segments with financial advice, with medical advice — segments that are more consistent on the schedule.”

In fact, Silberwasser said he believes Un Nuevo Día is “more of a utility vehicle” of a morning show while remaining fun. “The ‘other’ show is really about entertainment and frivolous things, while we are providing a little more info … and it’s paying off,” he said.

Additionally, Silberwasser is quick to point out that José Diaz-Balart, anchor of the 6:30pm weeknight news show Noticiero Telemundo, is now on MSNBC, making him the first news anchor in history to appear on an English-language and Spanish-language newscast at the same time. Veteran Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos appears on a newsmagazine on the Fusion cable channel, while former WSVN-Channel 7 in Miami and CNN news anchor Rick Sanchez now helms a Spanish-language newsmagazine for Miami-based Mira TV while simultaneously hosting a daily talk-radio show for iHeartMedia’s WIOD in Miami.

PRIMED FOR GROWTH

Silberwasser said Telemundo has  much room for ratings growth in prime-time — at least before 10 p.m. He’s particularly proud of his network’s performance in the 10 p.m. hour, where the Telemundo-produced telenovela Señora Acero debuted in late September and wrapped up its run on January 12. Señora Acero was the No. 5 prime-time series in Spanish-language television, averaging a 9.5 rating across its final Monday-Friday broadcasts and attracting more than 2.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen viewer estimates for Spanish-language television households for the week ended Jan. 11, 2014.

Señora Acero [beat] the competition on a consistent basis for the past three months,” Silberwasser said. “In launching of each ‘super series,’ we are seeing numbers we’ve not seen since the first Kate del Castillo telenovela, La Reina del Sur.”

La Reina del Sur, a 2011 blockbuster telenovela, set the stage for the “super series” concept of multiple-season story arcs for Telemundo. The star power of del Castillo was key to the series’ success, and Telemundo has once again called on her to continue its ratings riches at 10 p.m. The new Telemundo Studios soap Dueños del Paraíso, in which del Castillo stars, is now airing in Señora Acero’s old time slot.

“We are creating telenovelas with the idea that [the shows] can come back,” Silberwasser said. “Usually in this marketplace they come and they go, and perhaps seven years later they’ll come back as a remake. Now we have a Season Two, or a Season Three, of a show. We’re giving the viewer something different, and you’ll notice that the tone of our 10 p.m. telenovela is different than what has been seen at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.”

Indeed, Telemundo broke new ground on telenovela plots by airing the Caracol TV-produced Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal, based on the true-life occurrences of Colombia’s most notorious drug lord, from July 2012 through early January 2013.

SOARING WITH SPORTS

Although the next FIFA World Cup is three years away, Silberwasser said Telemundo and basic-cable sibling NBC Universo (née mun2) are already employing a portfolio strategy that involves getting viewers interested in the athletes set to make a statement in 2018.

“We will be the Spanish-language broadcast home of the under-17 games, and a lot of those players will be stars of the 2018 World Cup,” Silberwasser noted. “We want to follow them, and take those tournaments ahead of the big tournament seriously, instead of just focusing on the main event.”

Player profiles will help in establishing familiarity with these potential future stars.

The use of social TV, where live tweets and social media updates corresponding to a Telemundo program help generate conversation among viewers, will also likely help build early interest in FIFA programs. Social TV is already generating buzz at Telemundo for the level of activity associated with some of its telenovelas.

“One of the fascinating things I found here was the symbiotic relationship between our social side and our programming side, and how the one side supports the other,” Silberwasser said. “It’s the conversation that happens, and the viewer engagement, that are truly amazing. For the final episodes of Señora Acero, I was watching it on screen and following the Twitter feed at the same time, and people were really into it.

“With the plot line, everyone thought that the lead male character was going to incriminate the lead actress on the show, and they were upset,” Silberwasser said of Señora Acero. “But in the end he didn’t, and everyone reacted by putting hearts all over the Twitter feed. Our viewers are commenting while things are happening, and they are very much engaged with the story. That is something that I hadn’t seen before. Social TV is something we are all learning how to do better. Hispanics are a young audience, and we have to think of a multiscreen environment when thinking about this audience.”

Understanding the audience and all of its Telemundo touchpoints is one component of a network vision that Silberwasser has done much to fulfill in the short time he’s been at the network.

“We have a vision to be the best of what Hispanic America is all about,” he said. “This market deserves something different: unique original content for the people that live here. My goal is to ride the curve of the growing U.S. Hispanic population. While this marketplace still has a foot in Latin America, it is a market that lives here and is growing in economic and political clout. I think we are positioned to be the best place for this audience.”

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