Q&A: InterMedia’s Alan Sokol

Alan Sokol is a senior investment partner at InterMedia, the private equity firm that owns several media properties, including Puerto Rico’s WAPA-TV and its cable and satellite superstation WAPA America. Sokol, who has served as executive at Telemundo and Sony Pictures, spoke recently with Multichannel News contributor Laura Martínez about WAPA America’s recent strides in the U.S. Hispanic market, including its recent addition on the Verizon FiOS platform, and how the station plans to compete in an increasingly competitive television market. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What would you say have been the major investments done in WAPA-TV since InterMedia acquired it in 2007?

A: In Puerto Rico, which is our core business, we have made significant investments in programming and marketing that have so far paid off. As far as programming is concerned, we have invested many millions of dollars in acquiring many new movie packages from the biggest studios in the U.S. and have the biggest, most current movies available. And that has really helped us grow our nightly movie ratings. In addition, we’ve acquired key U.S. series and we’ve changed the programming paradigm in Puerto Rico by putting U.S. primetime hit series in primetime in Puerto Rico. This has been the case with series such as Prison Break, Grey’s Anatomy, CSI Miami and House, all which are airing on primetime (6 pm - 10 pm.)

We have also invested in new facilities and equipment to upgrade our news department; our facilities are now fully digital. We also rebranded the station, which was called Televicentro, back to its original name — WAPA — which we believe is a well-regarded name in Puerto Rico.

Q: How much are you producing versus importing shows from the U.S.?

A: We do about a 100 hours a week of local programming; so the vast majority of our programming is produced in Puerto Rico, and that’s how we aim to maintain our identity, as opposed to our competitors who are mostly airing telenovelas from other countries in primetime.

Q: How have all these investments impacted the station’s ratings?

A: We’ve seen tremendous returns in our ratings. When we acquired the station, WAPA-TV was number 3 in primetime in both households and adults 18-49. We are now number one in adults 18-49 and number two in households; and that’s both Monday through Friday and Monday through Sunday. Year to year, we’re the only station to have grown among women 18-49 and persons 18-49.

Q: Are your main competitors in Puerto Rico still Univision and Telemundo?

A: Puerto Rico is an unusual market in the sense that is almost a throw back to the U.S. of 30 years ago. In Puerto Rico you have three stations that together account for over 80% of the audience. It’s like the old days in the U.S. when you had ABC, CBS and NBC and nothing else. Puerto Rico is a lot like that; this is a market where the audience watches three broadcast stations. There are some independent stations and then there are cable and satellite channels, but Univision and Telemundo are really the ones with significant ratings, and the ones we program against.

Q: How is your programming strategy different for WAPA America here in the U.S.?

A: With WAPA America we are targeting not only Puerto Ricans but all Caribbean Hispanics, so [our programming] has to be more broadly appealing. Also, we have to program a bit differently because we don’t have rights to certain series we have in Puerto Rico, namely the U.S. series. We are now set to double down our investment in WAPA America and invest in acquiring telenovelas from other Caribbean countries. We’ll be airing those in primetime and eventually we’d like to produce just for the U.S. market.

Q: What’s WAPA America’s current penetration?

A: When we acquired the station, WAPA America was carried by DirecTV and Comcast. Since then we’ve added Cablevision, Time Warner in New York, Brighthouse (Orlando and Tampa), New England on Cox and Verizon FiOS nationally. In addition, with Comcast we added several markets, including Washington D.C. and Chicago; and we’ve moved down to basic digital in South Florida and we’ll be added to basic digital in Tampa in September. By the time we add Tampa next month, we’ll be at 2.9 million homes.