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Bilingual Duopolies Redefine Big NBC Stations

Don Browne recalls that, when he was general manager of NBC station WTVJ(TV) Miami, he envisioned a Spanish/English station duopoly. At the time, NBC was considering the purchase of a local Spanish-language station, and Browne was building a state-of-the-art facility in suburban Miramar.

That deal didn't work out, but NBC advanced the concept a few years later when it acquired the Telemundo network and its stations, including WSCV(TV) Miami.

And with a facility designed with bilingual duopoly in mind and a general manager long committed to the idea, Miami became the first of NBC/Telemundo's duopolies to fully integrate.

Now, in other major markets, too, powerful NBC stations are redefining themselves in bilingual duopolies.

In Los Angeles, (DMA No. 2, but the nation's top Hispanic market), NBC has put together a massive newsroom in its Burbank facility that serves three stations it owns there. And in Chicago (DMA No. 3, Hispanic market No. 5), "our news sets are separated by about 6 inches of drywall," says Larry Wert, general manager of NBC's WMAQ-TV and Telemundo's WSNS(TV) Chicago.

While the advantages of a bilingual duopoly may not seem as obvious as when two stations speak the same language, Browne—who recently left the Miami duopoly to become Telemundo's chief operating officer—says the WTVJ duopoly with WSCV is everything he envisioned and more. "We are in each other's editorial meetings. Telemundo has opened the door for NBC to the Spanish-language market."

In Los Angeles, where NBC owns KNBC(TV), KVEA(TV) and KWHY-TV, Paula Madison, general manager of KNBC and regional manager for all the properties agrees. "Traffic, production and many back-office functions can be shared more easily." And, the veteran broadcast journalist adds, bilingualism promoted by the duopolies can be a major help in newsgathering.

Even with all the combinations and synergies, the NBC executives recognize the necessity of maintaining stations' distinct outlook. While bilingual skills are important and will open up individual opportunities, "the most important thing is to have a knowledge and sensitivity into the culture," says Browne, who spent years as a journalist in Latin America.

"What our predominantly Spanish-speaking audience wants to see differs from what our predominantly English-speaking audience wants," says Tom O'Brien, general manager of NBC-owned KXAS-TV Dallas and its Telemundo cousin, KXTX-TV. "We focus more on news from Mexico, which is seen as more of a local story on a Spanish-language station here."

For the most part, the NBC-Telemundo stations continue to trail 800-lb. Spanish-language gorilla Univision's owned and affiliated stations, and, in the duopoly markets, the Telemundo local newscasts have pretty much been flat or down year-to-year, with a slight ratings increase in New York (DMA No. 1, Hispanic market No. 2). But Telemundo attributes much of that to problems acknowledged in its prime time programming and the lack of effective lead-ins.

Browne notes that many of the newscasts significantly outperform their lead-ins, and the network boasted this spring that the resources of NBC News helped bring huge increases to its newscasts.

Telemundo and NBC executives assert, and analysts agree, that the story will take longer than a year or two to unfold. "At the end of the day, this will be better for Telemundo; clearly, NBC's going to be a more formidable owner than Sony. The degree and pace of profit are the only issues, and those are really more related to programming," says Bear Stearns media analyst Victor Miller. "But NBC is a very well-run O&O group."

Manuel Abud, general manager for Telemundo's Los Angeles outlet, KVEA, under Madison, is happy to have NBC's deep pockets but notes that improvements go deeper than that. "We were owned by Sony before," says Abud, whose time as a Telemundo executive predates the NBC deal. "With NBC, it's a combination of the deep pockets and their knowledge of the business. At the end of the day, that translates into a better product, and that will translate into better numbers."

NBC's deeper pockets were not unnoticed by Telemundo employees or by organized labor. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which already represents on-air employees at O&O WMAQ-TV Chicago, tried to get instant recognition as the bargaining agent for local WSNS(TV) Telemundo talent through a petition from station talent and through community pressure. Eventually, the union won recognition after an National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election.

According to AFTRA National Director for News and Broadcasting Tom Carpenter, the union intends to continue pursuing representation at Spanish-language stations, including the NBC duopolies. Actor John Connolly, AFTRA's national chairman, has joined the coordinated bargaining committee of unions that deal with General Electric and earlier this year addressed a GE shareholders meeting regarding Telemundo. "We are talking to employees" at other markets, he told them.