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Browne Speaks NBC's New Language

It has been four years since NBC ventured into Spanish-language broadcasting, buying Telemundo and its stations for $2.7 billion. After some early stumbles, Telemundo has been enjoying eight straight months of ratings growth, with several prime time hits on its slate. Much of the credit goes to network President Don Browne, who took over in April 2005 after two years as the No. 2 executive. Browne has proved that he understands both the NBC corporate culture and Hispanic audiences. An NBC News veteran, he was the Miami bureau chief, and he helped create Dateline and put Katie Couric in the Today anchor chair. As Telemundo heads into the upfront, Browne talked to B&C's Allison Romano about the U.S. Hispanic audience, how to catch up with heavyweight Univision, and why Katie Couric belongs on the CBS Evening News.

Telemundo is making strong gains, but some critics say NBC has been slow to capitalize on the opportunities. What's your take?

When GE and NBC bought Telemundo, it sent a very significant message that Spanish-language television was a big deal. But it was difficult and distracting to integrate Telemundo with GE and NBC culture.

After about a year, it become obvious that the business model they bought—based on Telemundo's acquiring shows from other people—was not working and it would never make a run against Univision.

At the same time, Univision created [second network] Telefutura to hold us off.

So we invested tens of millions of dollars to reinvent ourselves as an original-content producer. We now have studios in Miami and Colombia and are producing in Mexico. It allows us to control our own destiny and create relevant original content for the U.S. Hispanic marketplace.

We launched our first program in 2003, and it exceeded expectations. Then we got a hit with Pasión de Gavilanes, which went on to be huge in Spain. Since we own these shows, we can sell them abroad.

But after that, we ran out of steam, and Univision had two monster hits. We had the right strategy but didn't have the right architecture or the depth of experience to sustain it.

So what are you doing differently now?

We create more than 1,000 hours of scripted programming a year. It is a tremendous amount. When I came in, I knew we needed to bring in a much stronger and more experienced team. I am a big fan of architecture. We hired a dedicated head of development, Marcos Santana, and brought in Patricio Wills to run the studios and oversee production. In combination, they have turned out to be the missing links. Development is one of the critical aspects.

But Univision still dominates the ratings. How do you plan to chip away?

Our research says a lot people watch Univision out of habit. This is not a going to be a light switch. It takes time for people to adapt and acquire taste for a better product. But we have a different model and content that is contemporary and relevant.

The English-language networks are hot on novela development right now. NBC is even adapting some of your scripts. Do you think the format will translate?

It is like asking if soccer will translate. The most popular sport in the world is finally starting to come on in the U.S. This country is the last frontier for novelas. If one of the networks can capture the passion for novelas, they will have a huge hit. But there is a science to them, and many of the people producing don't know what to do. There are intricacies in how the storylines are written and how the plot is sustained.

Univision is for sale, and Mexican broadcaster Televisa—its main programming supplier—is a front-runner to buy a piece. How will that impact the industry?

It is going to be tough. Televisa has been around for 50 years, and they are very good at what they do. They are very tough and dominating competitors. They are going to go after the general market and the major networks for dollars and eyeballs.

You worked on Today in 1991, when Katie Couric signed on as co-anchor. Is she making the right move?

This is a natural progression for Katie. She's going back to her hard-news roots. I knew her as a general-assignment reporter who had never anchored before, and she was hard-core. In Miami, she once spent a week as a homeless person for a story. She was a journalist. She wasn't manufactured.