A Special Latin Beat

For most local stations, the good old days when broadcast TV ruled the television landscape are just a distant memory. But in the late 1990s, Gary Chapman, chairman, president and CEO of LIN Television, discovered a market where the power of broadcast TV hasn't been diluted by the spread of cable or satellite: the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

“The market was in some ways reminiscent of U.S. television in the 1960s and 1970s,” Chapman recalls. The climate for broadcast-TV advertising was very strong. Cable and satellite penetration was low, (it's around 43% today), and most people got TV over the air. Three broadcasters—the local Univision and Telemundo stations and independent WAPA—split about 90% of the ad revenue.

Chapman liked those numbers so much that LIN Television snapped up WAPA from GE Capital for about $70 million in 1999.

Since last fall, Chapman has been using WAPA's strength as an old-style broadcaster by offering the channel on cable and satellite in the U.S. Here, it's called WAPA America (which launched last September). The channel produces more than 100 hours of local programming a week.

WAPA America is carried on DBS as a part of DirecTV's Hispanic package Para Todos. LIN also inked a carriage deal with Comcast, which has launched or will be launching the network in parts of New England and Florida and in other markets where Comcast systems serve large Puerto Rican populations. There's not much advertising on the channel, but from cable and DBS subscription fees, Chapman thinks the stateside version of WAPA will be profitable this year. NBC Universal has also begun distributing its Puerto Rican station as Telemundo Puerto Rico to cable and satellite operators in the U.S.

Recently, LIN forged an alliance with Viacom to launch MTV Puerto Rico on a second station that LIN owns. “At some point, we might consider taking that into the U.S., given the interest in Latin music,” Chapman says.

For now, WAPA is LIN's main Puerto Rican focus. “Puerto Ricans represent over 10% of the U.S. Hispanic population, but when we launched WAPA America,” notes VP of Programming and Advertising Margarita Millán, “there was no programming for them.”

That explains why DirecTV, which was in the process of revamping its Hispanic tier to target underserved segments of the Latin community, jumped at WAPA America.

“It was just the kind of channel we were looking for,” says Mark Ryan, VP of marketing at Para Todos. “In the areas where there were large Puerto Rican populations [such as New York and Florida], we could see a spike in sales [for Para Todos] within weeks after we launched WAPA America. It has a very strong brand among the Puerto Rican community.”

Puerto Rico has a population of 3.7 million, and 3.2 million Puerto Ricans live in the U.S. If Puerto Rico were included in Nielsen markets, it would rank as the 19th-largest in terms of total TV households and second in the Hispanic market, right after Los Angeles.

“We've positioned ourselves as the Puerto Rican alternative” to Univision and Telemundo, each of which targets much of its programming toward Mexican viewers, says Millán.

Currently, WAPA produces more than 46 hours of news and over 60 hours of entertainment programming weekly, including comedies, talk shows and about six TV movies a year. The No. 1 show in Puerto Rico is its unique SuperXclusivo, a gossip show centering on Puerto Rican celebrities and politicians—hosted by a puppet named La Comay, along with Leo Fernandez III, who interviews public figures.

The channel is also known for its local news and was the first in the market to begin using a helicopter and a modern system of graphics for its weather reports.

The popularity of some of the shows, Chapman says, is illustrated by the fact that one-third of the calls during some of WAPA's live talk shows came from States.

Most Puerto Ricans maintain close ties with family and friends on the island and travel there often, without hassles or passports; Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. “Even third- and fourth-generation families keep close ties to the island,” Chapman says. WAPA just makes it easier.