Cool Demeanor: O’Connor Spoke the Right Language for a Tough Job

Tonia O’Connor
Executive Vice President,
Distribution, Sales and Marketing
Univision Communications

Univision Communications hired Tonia O’Connor in January 2008 for a challenging job: convincing cable and satellite operators to pay a license fee of UP to $1 per subscriber for a Spanish-language broadcast network, Univision.

She had no experience in negotiating retransmission-consent deals, particularly not cash fees for carrying broadcast channels. Univision Communications, which also owns the cable network Galavisión and broadcast network TeleFutura, had previously elected “must-carry” status.

Her previous experience, it turns out, was good training: In addition to carriage and fees for TV Guide Network and horse-racing channel TVG, she had negotiated fee payments from distributors for Gemstar’s electronic program guide. Operators had never paid money for that product, either. “Talk about difficult negotiations, difficult conversations — that really takes the cake,” O’Connor said of the guide licensing. “That was excellent training.”

Univision CEO Joe Uva said it was clear early on that O’Connor, 40, understood his company’s value proposition and would communicate that to distributors. She also had the integrity and “cool demeanor” to negotiate some 140 distribution deals, bringing in an estimated $350 million in revenue over three to five years.

“Tonia has done an absolutely remarkable job of not only helping develop the strategy for our retransmission-consent efforts but also in executing against that strategy,” Uva said. “And she has certainly delivered the results.”

O’Connor and her team — including senior vice presidents Dan Taitz, who worked on deals with the bigger distributors, and Deanna Andaverde, who dealt with many independent distributors — got those deals done with no carriage disruption, she noted.

“We approached it from a spirit of partnership,” she said. “We spent a lot of time talking about possibilities” with distributors and how Univision could help achieve those goals.

Video-on-demand “was huge” for cable operators, and Univision launched a VOD service.

The stations launched in high definition last year, another distributor desire; HD penetration of Hispanics is relatively low.

Univision also supports broadband efforts such as Comcast’s Xfinity, or “TV anywhere,” rollout. Broadband is “a huge opportunity for distributors,” O’Connor said; Hispanics, once they adopt broadband, over-index in terms of using the service.

Univision’s Comcast deal got done first, and DirecTV got done shortly thereafter, helping establish momentum O’Connor said.

But Univision had numerous independent distributor deals to do, too.

“They need the same attention, and you have to apply, in many cases, the same resources to complete those deals as you do the big ones,” O’Connor said. “And they’re important for us, especially in some of the markets where you have a high Hispanic density. I don’t care how big or small you are, we need to make sure we are distributed with every single one of those distributors.”

O’Connor negotiated a renewal with Insight Communications (about 722,000 subscribers), and her counterpart across the table, Insight’s Melani Griffith, came away satisfied — and impressed.

“I will confess that I approached those meetings like, 'You’re not going to get this,’ ” said Griffith, Insight’s senior vice president of programming. In Kentucky, she said, Spanish-language programmers aren’t vital enough to command a big license fee.

“I took maybe one of the hardest lines I’ve ever taken with a programmer, because I felt very confident that we would survive without that service,” Griffith said. “Tonia heard me. She didn’t get into a fight. She didn’t yell. We had no dramatics. She said, 'Your business is incredibly important, I appreciate what you’re saying about your demographics, let’s see what we can do to work with you.’ And ultimately she found a way to do that.”

From day one, O’Connor said, distributors were wondering what the retransmission talks were going to be like. They had been widely speculated about after Univision’s buyout by venture capital firms and Uva’s public statements that it would seek $1 per subscriber in fees.

Many long work weeks began in January 2008 and continued through to Univision’s finishing its retransmission deals in mid-2009, O’Connor said. She also built an affiliate organization now up to about 40 people.

Her husband, Greg Mayes, corporate counsel for a large pharmaceutical concern, was supportive of her taking the Univision job and their moving from near Philadelphia to northern New Jersey.

Still, she had recently had their third child, a daughter (their sons are 11 and 8), and would be taking a job that not only required them to relocate but required her to take on a challenging, time-consuming work endeavor.

“It was a lot at once, and it was very tough at times, no question,” she said.

“But that’s the great part of it, too. To do this kind of a job you have to really love that and, sick as it sounds, I thrive in those types of situations.”

With the deals done, hard work is ahead fulfilling the obligation to distributors on VOD, HD, broadband and marketing in general. But that will be great, too, O’Connor said.

“When we talk about partnership, we mean it,“ she said. “It isn’t just a selling point to get a deal done.”