Zel Gives Telemundo Best of Both Worlds

Antoinette Zel, Telemundo senior executive VP, network strategy, identifies herself as “bipolar”—though not in the psychological sense of the word. Her parents fled Cuba in 1960, and she was born in New York four years later. Zel spent her high school years in Miami, in a Cuban part of the city. She identifies equally with both Hispanics and Americans.

Her background and a lifelong love of the arts have seen Zel through senior roles at MTV Networks Latin America, which she helped found and ultimately ran, to her current home at NBC-owned Telemundo, which she joined in November 2004. Helming several parts of a major Hispanic television company in America requires both an identification with the Hispanic audience and an understanding of the U.S. television industry—and Zel is uniquely qualified to offer both.

“I'm Cuban and Hispanic, and that's who I am,” she says. “When Telemundo and NBC came calling, it crystallized this opportunity to be an agent for change in the Hispanic community, and that's what fuels me every day.”

The entertainment bug

Zel caught the entertainment-industry bug when she did volunteer work for artists while at Columbia's law school in the late 1980s. After graduation, she wanted to merge law and the arts in her career, so she took a job at Manhattan entertainment-law firm Reid & Priest, where she represented heavy-hitting clients such as Viacom and record label Def Jam.

Her dealings with Viacom led to a job offer there, and Zel jumped to the broadcast giant in 1991, serving as senior counsel for MTV Networks' Business and Legal Affairs Group. Zel did much more than legal work: She dabbled in the production and creative departments, especially at Nickelodeon, then in its infancy. She worked alongside luminaries such as Gerry Laybourne, Anne Sweeney and Nick's then-head of programming and development, Herb Scannell.

Zel found the mix of legal and creative work to her liking. “I was like every frustrated lawyer,” she says. “You really have to find compatibility in terms of who you are personally and professionally, and that's when you hit your zone.”

She really hit hers a little while later. When MTV started its Latin American division, bringing the network to more than 20 countries full of kids who had never had their MTV, Zel joined the launch team. She moved to Miami in 1993 and served as general counsel/VP of business and legal affairs, managing the legal and business-affairs departments and overseeing development of new businesses, such as radio and licensing.

Zel was eventually named president of all the MTV Latin America networks in 2002, bringing customized versions of not just MTV but also Nickelodeon and VH1 to numerous Spanish-speaking countries.

While she enjoyed spreading the MTV brand to Spanish speakers around the world, Zel longed to impact the U.S. Hispanic market. MTV's Latin American networks were at the top of their game in ratings and revenue, and Zel was ready for a new challenge. She answered a call from Telemundo in 2004—not long after NBC bought the company.

Telemundo's new ownership gave the U.S. Hispanic market a “big shot in the arm,” Zel says, and she jumped at the opportunity to join, managing cable networks and strategy. Within a year, she took on her current position, heading cable networks mun2, Telemundo Puerto Rico and Telemundo Internacional and managing strategy for the broadcast network, where she leads marketing, research, digital media, video-on-demand and other new ventures.

Zel is focused on growing Telemundo's market share against pack leader Univision, its sister Telefutura, and newcomers like Azteca America (see Station to Station, page 10). She's doing so with homegrown content: telenovelas, hour-long dramas, reality, sports and news shows.

The next generation

She is also “hyper-focused on the next generation of Hispanics,” she says, and has overhauled Telemundo's youth cable network mun2 to be more inviting, bringing on a new executive team, a fresh on-air look and a revamped programming grid.

The only young, Latino network to be tracked by Nielsen, Telemundo now programs in both English and Spanish and has posted one-year ratings growth as high as 660% in the 12-34 demo in key time periods, such as 5-6 p.m. on weekdays. The network, which relocated its production offices from Miami to Los Angeles, will launch a major consumer-awareness campaign in early 2006.

Telemundo bosses are more than happy to have Zel spearhead the campaign. “Antoinette has been a big asset for Telemundo in helping us successfully negotiate a period of rapid change and great opportunity,” says President Don Browne. “Her intelligence, creativity and drive have been welcome additions to the Telemundo team.”

Although she spends most of her waking hours working—“My girlfriends play tennis; work is my hobby,” she says—Zel finds time to relax with her husband and three sons, ages 4, 5 and 9. She also loves reading, watching television, and listening to up-and-coming Hispanic artists like Javier García.

Zel has seen a lot change since she entered the workforce. “It's exciting to be a Hispanic woman at this point in my career,” she says. “This position I have at Telemundo can do a lot of good. One of the reasons I left MTV is because I believed I was one of a group of lucky ones who could really impact social change for the Hispanic audience.”