The Bright Star of Hispanic Broadcast TV

Slightly more than four years ago, Burbank, Calif.-based Hispanic media company Liberman Broadcasting flipped the switch on a nationally distributed Spanish-language television network that expanded on its success at the company’s owned-and-operated stations in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and San Diego.

No one could foretell the success, or failure, of what had been dubbed EstrellaTV. In a media universe dominated by telenovelas and soccer, EstrellaTV placed its bets on originally produced competition shows, comedy-fueled variety shows and a fledgling news department. Today, EstrellaTV enjoys distribution in 8 million households across the U.S. and has surged in the Nielsen TV ratings.

For three weeks in October, EstrellaTV’s primetime programming (7-11 p.m.) ranked third among all Hispanic persons and Hispanic adults aged 25-54. Alarma TV, EstrellaTV’s 10 p.m. “newsmagazine” and its 10:30 p.m. nightly national newscast, Noticiero Enrique Gratas, can be found among the 20 most-watched Spanish-language television programs.

While Liberman Broadcasting president and CEO Lenard Liberman may disagree with the notion that EstrellaTV is a quiet success, the network has maintained a rather understated approach in its marketing and ratings braggadocio compared to other recently launched Hispanic television channels.

“With our audience … they know we are there,” Liberman told Hispanic Television Update, noting that EstrellaTV is the lone Hispanic television network to see year-over-year growth in October. “We are an alternative, and we’re doing something different. The viewer has embraced this programming, and our new programs are really resonating with our audience.”

Among the recent additions to the EstrellaTV lineup are the 9 p.m. variety show Noches con Platanito, starring Mexican actor/entertainer Sergio Verduzco. Just flipping on the channel while Platanito is on the air is bound to elicit laughs — his presentation is best described as Jay Leno dressed as The Simpsons’ famed fictional kids’ show host Krusty the Clown.

Chock full of celebrity interviews and sketch comedy, Noches con Platanito has hit its stride since its April debut. Verduzco joined EstrellaTV after exiting Televisa’s pay television TeleHit network in early 2012.

Meanwhile, EstrellaTV’s American Idol-like competition show Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento continues to draw a sizable audience, with its ratings up 30% season-to-date, Liberman notes.

“It’s a lot of work, and you have to know the business pretty well to launch this type of programming,” Liberman said. “But we are not repurposing content from Mexico. We are actually focused on producing content that would look a lot like what the viewer would find in the general market.

“Our production values are top-notch, and this makes our network efficient. We tend not to have to cancel any shows because of the effort put in to producing these shows, and making sure that it reflects what our viewers want.”

How does Liberman help the EstrellaTV programming team develop and launch its shows? “Generally, I watch a lot of TV, mostly internationally but also domestically,” he said. “I look at the concepts that I can change and develop with our audience. I’m also always seeing what works in the general market.”

This approach has solidified EstrellaTV’s ability to reach a diverse group of Hispanic television viewers who may desire more than melodramatic prime-time soaps or imported series from Latin America. The network presently has nearly two-dozen affiliates in markets such as Miami and on O&Os serving Chicago and New York purchased after EstrellaTV’s national rollout. With distribution in markets with smaller percentages of Mexican-Americans than other Hispanic groups, Mr. Liberman said it is patently false to consider EstrellaTV a Mexican-focused network.

“That is not true anymore,” Liberman said. “When we first launched [Los Angeles flagship] KRCA channel 62 in 1998, it was by definition an operation that catered to a largely Mexican audience. With the launch of EstrellaTV, we made a concerted effort to make our network appealable across all cultural lines. You will see people of various nationalities in our shows.”

Another key to EstrellaTV’s growth, Liberman said, is his understanding of how recent immigrants from Latin America gradually change their media preferences based on what’s relevant to them today.

“When a viewer moves to the U.S. from Latin America, they are now exposed to U.S. tastes, and their tastes change,” he said. “Most of these people today want to watch programs that reflect what is being discussed here in the U.S. They are embracing more and more U.S. culture, and this is why we want programming that focuses on this.”

Noticiero Enrique Gratas is no exception. The 30-minute newscast, airing in the nontraditional 10:30-11 p.m. timeslot, has been embraced by viewers and ranks among EstrellaTV’s most-watched offerings. The newscast, featuring Gratas, the former host of Univision’s Ultima Hora, offers a fast-paced take on news across the U.S. and Latin America.

The growth of EstrellaTV’s news division is very important to Liberman. In addition to Gratas, the network has capitalized on the addition of another Univision News veteran -- Myrka Dellanos -- as the anchor of its 5:30 p.m. newscast.

What’s next for EstrellaTV? Liberman isn’t shy in discussing the possibilities of a morning show to compete against Univision juggernaut Despierta América. He’s also looking into a network-managed online platform in which EstrellaTV can sell advertising and weave it into its over-the-air distribution. Short-form video sharing service Vines is already being used to promote EstrellaTV shows, while all of the network’s talent are encouraged to use Facebook and Twitter as promotional vehicles.

Whatever EstrellaTV’s next moves are, Liberman expects his audience to react positively, even if the network continues its quiet approach to making itself known.

“We may not have the PR muscle of a Univision or Comcast, but the audience doesn’t know that,” he said. “They just want to watch good television.”