Months before the first whistle of the World Cup, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Univision Communications’ sports division, presented his engineers with a challenge: Could they figure out how to beam its soccer broadcasts into American homes faster than its English-language competitors?
About a half-million dollars in new technology later, the challenge was met - Univision’s broadcasts beat ESPN’s and ABC’s, if only by a matter of seconds.
For Rodriguez, that felt like enough to lure away some viewers. “Who doesn’t want to yell ‘Goal!’ five or six seconds before their neighbors?” he said in an interview from Brazil.
The World Cup has been a record-breaking event for Univision, which has dominated its TV rivals in several of America’s largest cities – Los Angeles, Miami and Houston. It even won the New York market for some games. With the finals still to come Sunday – featuring a Latin American team for the first time in 12 years – Univision has already drawn roughly 80 million viewers, or about 60 percent more than it logged for the 2010 tournament.
The numbers serve as a kind of exclamation point on the sharp growth of America’s Hispanic population over the last two decades. It is a demographic shift that has been apparent in voting trends and employment patterns. Now the World Cup has shown how it is reshaping the media landscape, too.
A confluence of other factors – some deliberate, some serendipitous – have also worked to the network’s advantage. Legions of soccer fans used Univision’s free streaming to covertly watch games on their office computers or cellphones. A handful of Latin American teams, including Mexico and Costa Rica, performed surprisingly well in the tournament. And some non-Hispanic viewers simply prefer the network’s excitable commentators, who work themselves into a frenzy every time a player crosses midfield with the ball, never mind drives it into the back of the net: “Mamita querido que GOOOLLLAZZZOO!”
The unprecedented exposure that it has received from the World Cup could not have come at a better time for Univision. The company is owned by a group of investors led by the media mogul Haim Saban, who is perhaps best known for importing the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to America from Japan. During a private equity boom in 2007, his group acquired Univision for $13.7 billion in a bidding war orchestrated by the company’s largest shareholder and former chairman, A. Jerrold Perenchio. Perenchio, a onetime Hollywood agent, saw the potential of Spanish-language television in 1992, when he bought Univision for just $500 million.
Saban and his partners are now exploring the possibility of a deal in the middle of a flurry of big media industry mergers. In recent months, they have spoken to at least two large companies, Time Warner and CBS, about selling Univision for roughly $20 billion. They are also considering an initial public offering of stock.
Twenty billion dollars would be a high price for a Spanish-language media company. But on any given night, Univision’s steamy telenovelas – tales of love, sex, money and betrayal, imported exclusively from Mexico – can attract more viewers than English-language networks like Fox and NBC. The network established its political influence when it hosted a presidential forum during the last campaign, and it is poised to play an even larger role in the 2016 race.
Univision, which was started in 1955 as a local San Antonio TV station, is now a sprawling media empire based in New York, reaching nearly 100 million television households across the United States.
“We’re seen as a Spanish-language broadcaster that mostly competes with Telemundo,” the company’s chief executive, Randy Falco, said. “But in my view, we should be competing with the English-language networks because increasingly we will have an audience that will surpass them.”
Falco, who took over at Univision three years ago after senior positions at NBC and AOL, embodies the company’s desire to be seen as a mainstream media company. He is a 60-year-old Bronx native who does not speak Spanish.
Yet the same shifting demographics that help Univision also threaten its dominance. Other media companies are now trying to reach the growing Hispanic population, most notably Telemundo, which has the powerful resources of its parent company, Comcast, behind it.
Telemundo outbid Univision for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, breaking the Spanish-language monopoly Univision has held over the tournament since 1972. Telemundo has also been investing heavily in its own telenovelas. Its biggest hit at the moment, “El SeÃ±or de los Cielos” (“The Lord of the Skies”), about a Mexican drug lord, sometimes draws larger audiences than Univision’s competing novella in the same time slot. Not so long ago, that would have been inconceivable, according to Spanish-language TV experts.
“If I were Univision right now, I would be asking myself, Where are we headed?” said Emiliano Saccone, the former head of MundoFox, another relative newcomer to the Hispanic market. “Can we sustain our kingdom the way we have for the last 50 years? My feeling is, not necessarily.”
Assimilation poses an even greater long-term threat. More Hispanics are now born in the United States every year than immigrate to the country. Many grow up bilingual and identify themselves culturally as American. Univision will have to compete with every other media outlet, Spanish and English alike, for their attention.
Whether the challenge is a stronger Telemundo, new Spanish-language networks like Nat Geo Mundo or streaming services like Hulu Latino, Univision is just starting to confront the same phenomenon that the major English-language networks have been dealing with for years: consumer choice.
“Univision speaks to that immigrant and post-immigrant generation, which is both their great advantage and their limitation,” said Alberto Vourvoulias, former managing editor of Fox News Latino. “Increasingly, as the dynamic shifts to a U.S. Latin market – to kids who are centered on U.S. culture and debates – then Univision becomes old school.”
That means Univision must find ways to appeal to a new generation of Hispanics without alienating its immigrant base. So far, its most prominent effort to reach a more acculturated audience of young Latinos is the English-language cable channel and website Fusion. A joint venture with ABC, Fusion began last fall and is aimed not only at young Hispanics but at millennials in general.
It would be a new audience for Univision, though the network is using a familiar face in its bid to attract viewers. One of Fusion’s anchors, Jorge Ramos – the Walter Cronkite of Spanish-language TV, as he is sometimes known – presided over Univision’s 2012 presidential forum, pressing President Barack Obama on his failure to pass immigration reform.
Ramos is also a co-host of Univision’s nightly news program, Noticiero Univision, which averages about 2 million viewers a night – a modest number compared with those of the Big Three English-language networks, but one that dwarfs those of cable news shows like CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” or MSNBC’s “Politics Nation.”
For the time being, Univision’s power in the political sphere is clearly on the rise. It is already the preferred outlet for politicians looking to reach Hispanic voters, a constituency that will only have more sway over U.S. elections in the coming years. The Center for American Progress estimates that the number of eligible Hispanic voters in 2016 will total 27.7 million, a 17 percent increase from 2012.
“From the numbers that we have, we see 800,000 Latino kids turning 18 every year,” said Isaac Lee, Univision’s president of news.
And for another day, at least, Univision still has the World Cup and its souped-up feed, courtesy of what a company spokeswoman described as “an investment in encoding and fiber transfer.” It also doesn’t hurt that the finals will feature Argentina, a team led by one of the world’s biggest soccer stars, Lionel Messi.
“It’s the main passion point for this audience,” said Falco, before pausing to reconsider. “Well, I guess we could argue about whether it’s soccer or telenovelas.”