Latino Youth Cable Net Launches

Riding the infrastructure of a bankrupt former network, a Spanish-language 24-hour children's service was poised for launch on digital cable this past weekend.

Sorpresa — Spanish for surprise — said it expected to start March 15 with 350 system affiliates, covering about 400,000 digital customers.

Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and the National Cable Television Cooperative are among the MSOs or groups set to carry the network, which is owned and operated by New York-based media company Firestone Communications.

The channel will offer a mixed bag of Spanish-language fare from various sources. Sorpresa's tone will be similar to Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or Disney Channel, with an emphasis on live action. Comedy, talk shows, game shows, music, movies and special-events programs will be featured, as well as animation.

Privately owned Firestone inherited carriage contracts from the principal creditors of Hispanic Television Network, the broadcast and cable network that went dark last fall.

Firestone also picked up HTVN's U.S. technical facility in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex in Texas. Former HTVN official Luis Estrada serves as the channel's programming vice president.

Sorpresa president Michael Fletcher said the operators would honor the HTVN deals and place the service in the channel berths formerly occupied by that network.

"We've been in communication with all the individual cable systems," he said. "So far, we've received no negative feedback, and they intend to carry us when we launch."

A Time Warner Cable spokesman confirmed the contract, but could not detail specific markets. A company official said Cox's Phoenix systems planned to premiere the service March 15, but lacked information pertaining to other areas.

NCTC officials did not return calls by press time.

Initially, one series will be U.S.-produced —Futbol con Mayte (Soccer with Mayte), a sports clinic. Discussions are also underway with producers in Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

Some Latino celebrities have been approached about show production or development, Fletcher added.

Southwest Airlines signed up for one of the network's first promotions, through which airline passengers can win two pairs of round-trip tickets each week for six weeks.

Grassroots projects involving affiliates are under review, and initial advertising sales deals are being finalized.

Firestone expects Sorpresa to break even by October 2004.