By Tyler Maroney

(FORTUNE Magazine) – When Nely Galan was a high school sophomore, she wrote a letter to Seventeen magazine about her rough experiences in an all-girl Catholic school. The editors were so impressed that they gave her a guest editor job. By 18 she was the host of her own PBS series, and four years later she became the youngest TV station manager in the country at WNJU in New Jersey, an affiliate of the struggling Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo. Now, at age 34, Galan has been named president of entertainment at Telemundo and charged with finally mounting a real challenge to the country's biggest Spanish-language network, Univision. If she succeeds, the rewards could be phenomenal: The Latino segment makes up 11% of the U.S. population and is growing five times faster than the general market. But toppling Univision will be no easy task. Owned by Univision Communications, it has an 85% share of the Spanish-speaking market, against 15% for Telemundo--picture UPN going up against NBC. Galan, however, thinks she's spied an Achilles' heel: Univision still relies on the old standbys of Spanish-language TV--steamy soap operas, kitschy variety shows, and lots of imported shows from Mexico. Older Latinos like these programs, but Galan hopes to gain market share by appealing to their kids, who dismiss Univision's shows as old-fashioned. "Every other market in the world is dominated by programming that is by and about the audience that watches it," says Telemundo CEO Peter Tortorici, formerly president of CBS. "And here's a market that doesn't have that." Galan adds, "You have an entire generation of people who have been media-less. And to change that, you need Latinos behind the scenes."

That's why, when Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media bought Telemundo earlier this year, they put Galan in charge. Already she's making changes, such as producing bilingual shows. Fluent in both English and Spanish, many second- and third-generation Latinos are more assimilated than their parents and speak a hybrid lingo, Spanglish. Now some of Telemundo's shows do too.

Galan is also trying to wean the network from the Mexican and Argentine shows that make up the bulk of its schedule, since their cultural signals tend to be a bit off. (The English-language equivalent would be a lineup filled with shows from Britain and Canada.) So Galan bought the rights to old American TV series like One Day at a Time and Starsky and Hutch, tweaked their scripts, and remade them in Spanish (as Solo en America and Reyes y Rey, respectively).

Galan has already impressed some important critics. "Sony is going to bring its programming expertise to bear on Telemundo," says Paul T. Sweeney, broadcast analyst with Salomon Smith Barney. "Advertising dollars are sure to follow the compelling new programming." Tortorici says that many ad clients have increased their spending by 20% to 30% over the past year. Telemundo has a ways to go to beat Univision, of course. But if Galan can resuscitate a tired 1970s sideburn showcase like Starsky and Hutch, there's no telling what she can do.

--Tyler Maroney