Hernan Lopez doesn’t look like a guy who produces telenovelas, the soap operas that dominate the airwaves throughout Latin America. He looks like a guy who stars in them. With his wavy black hair, firm jawline and velvety Argentinean accent, it’s easy to picture him galloping home on a white horse to rescue his childhood sweetheart from losing the family hacienda to a corrupt patrón.
But Lopez has a different quest ahead of him. As CEO of Fox International Channels he’s the point person and prime mover behind News Corp.’s effort to capture an outsize slice of a $1 trillion pie: the surging U.S. Hispanic market. Standing in front of 900 potential advertisers at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the annual upfronts, when TV networks spare no expense to showcase their upcoming offerings, he provides an early glimpse of MundoFox, a national Spanish-language broadcast television channel News Corp. is launching later this month.
The late Steve Jobs used to say if you asked a focus group to come up with an iPod, they would have told you they were perfectly happy with their Walkmen,” he says. Viewers of the established Spanish-language networks, he says, are like those hypothetical focus groupies: “They think they’re happy with their current choices,” but they’ll soon know better.
Within the first year of its existence, Lopez gushes, MundoFox expects to be distributed on 60 terrestrial stations covering more than 75% of the country’s 10 million-plus Hispanic households. It’ll spend $50 million in the process.
It’s a shrewd bet for a company whose fortunes are built on disrupting the status quo, most famously in 1986, when chief Rupert Murdoch gambled billions that there was room for a fourth major American broadcast network. Obvious as that proposition seems now, plenty of critics predicted disaster for Fox, which has finished the last eight seasons ranked No. 1 among its target audience of adults 18 to 49.
“We think the established Spanish-language networks today are trapped in the same formula that ABC, CBS and NBC were 25 years ago,” says Lopez, over coffee two days before his upfront presentation. “And we’re going to use the exact same strategy to win a significant space.”
News Corp. will have some competition, though. Across the landscape of news and entertainment, there’s scarcely a company that’s not scrambling to launch new offerings targeted at American Hispanics while searching for ways to draw more of them to its existing ones. Riding a wave of ratings success, Univision, the longtime leader in Spanish-language broadcasting, has launched three new networks already this year. In 2013 it will test its audience’s appetite for English-language programming, introducing a 24-hour cable news network in partnership with Disney-owned ABC.
Comcast, the parent of NBC Universal, is backing a new network called El Rey, to be programmed by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Meanwhile, its Telemundo network is committing to a big increase in original programming, a bid to differentiate its lineup from the largely imported fare at the other networks, and pooling its resources with NBC News for election coverage. And it’s much the same wherever else you look, from Viacom and Time Warner to Yahoo, AOL and YouTube.
“I think about my time in media,” says Univision CEO Randy Falco, an industry veteran of 37 years. “There’ve been times when things have changed very quickly, but this is probably the fastest I’ve seen.”