Univision is Ready for Its Closeup
Let the bidding begin for the star of Spanish-language media.

(FORTUNE Magazine) - On 52 nights last season the most watched television network among 18- to 34-year-olds was not ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, or even youth-oriented outlets like the WB and UPN. It was Univision, the Spanish-language stalwart.

As its English-language rivals bleed viewers, Univision's audience is actually growing: Today about two million homes tune into its primetime programming, up 67% from a decade ago. Its formula for attracting viewers is refreshingly retro: no reality shows or stunt casting, just a nightly melange of telenovelas (like soaps, but even frothier) and variety shows, Latino pop culture, and sex appeal.

Now Univision (Research) is strutting its stuff for suitors. In early February executives said they would consider selling the $2-billion-a-year Los Angeles--based company. Potential buyers include private-equity investors and major media companies such as CBS, News Corp., Disney, Time Warner (parent of FORTUNE's publisher), and Grupo Televisa, the Mexican television company that owns 11% of Univision and provides it with most of its telenovelas.

That Univision is in play is hardly surprising: With its two television networks (Univision and Telefutura), a cable channel, a 73-station radio business, a music-recording unit, and an online property, Univision is simply the most effective and powerful way to reach America's fast-growing Hispanic population. Its television networks command 80% of the U.S. Hispanic TV market; rival Telemundo, owned by NBC Universal, boasts just 20%. "Univision is the Hispanic equivalent of CBS, ABC, Clear Channel, and AOL bundled into one company," says Gary Bassell, CEO of The Bravo Group, an ad agency specializing in Hispanic marketing. Indeed, Viacom made an unsuccessful run at the company a few years back, and a source familiar with the matter tells FORTUNE that Time Warner held informal strategic talks with Univision in the fall.

What's surprising is Univision's newfound willingness to court the attention. The company is notoriously private. CEO A. Jerrold Perenchio, a 75-year-old former talent agent, doesn't speak to the media and encourages his employees to live by 20 "rules of the road," including an admonition to "stay out of the spotlight. It fades your suit." Univision executives reluctantly agreed to speak with FORTUNE about the company but declined to be photographed. During a lunch meeting in New York City with Ray Rodriguez, the company's president, I told him I'd like to talk about the rules of the road; he laughed and said, "Good, because we're breaking one of them right now."

Univision was bound to be dragged into the spotlight eventually. Media mergers are hot again (Viacom/DreamWorks, Disney/Pixar), and Univision in particular is on a roll. The TV network continues to post strong ratings, and an exclusive deal to broadcast World Cup soccer games in Spanish promises to draw even more viewers and advertisers. The $35 stock trades at more than 40 times trailing earnings, and people close to Univision say the company is looking to sell for north of $40 a share. At such a price, Perenchio, who owns 11% of the company, would take home a tidy $1.5 billion.

Is Univision worth the massive premium? Lots of American media companies are trying to figure out ways to reach U.S. Hispanics, now more than 41 million strong, up 17% from four years ago. CBS Radio has converted a classic rock station to Spanish-language format, and ABC this season began dubbing or subtitling its primetime lineup en espanol. In fact, a big pool of English-language programming can be heard in Spanish via the secondary audio program (SAP) service on most TVs.

But head to Miami, the unofficial capital of Latin America, and you'll understand why it would be hard for any company to recreate the kind of cachet Univision has with U.S. Hispanics. When I asked the cab driver at the airport to take me to Univision's offices, he lit up and rattled off his favorite shows and personalities, and even told me where some of the network's stars worked out. The crowd at a taping of Don Francisco Presenta, a Tonight Show--style gabfest that airs Wednesday nights, was amazingly diverse--senior citizens, teens in jeans, and families with preschoolers--the kind of multigenerational audience other networks almost never attract anymore. Gringos who try to capture the Univision magic seldom succeed. "We do get approached by third parties, and we get pitched by studios" about producing shows for Univision, says network chief Alina Falcon. "But many times they'll come and pitch a Spanish-language version of one of their shows, and that's not the right approach."

Still, Univision would benefit from teaming up with a big U.S. media company that has relationships with major advertisers. Despite its ratings prowess, only about half of the 300 biggest companies advertise on Univision, and its primetime inventory sells for 25% to 30% less than that of its mainstream counterparts. Advertisers may need Univision to reach Hispanic audiences, but not every company thinks it needs to market specifically to Hispanics. So Univision has had to sell not just itself but the Hispanic marketplace too.

Univision's growth from an also-ran network on a handful of stations to the country's dominant Spanish-language media company is one of the more improbable success stories of the past two decades, if only because its architect doesn't speak Spanish and isn't particularly engaged in the day-to-day operations of the company. Perenchio worked his way through college and landed a job with legendary studio head Lew Wasserman, another publicity-shy media type. He later started his own company, promoted famous people and big sporting events--like the famous tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King--and began looking for investments.

"Jerry is literally one of the most fascinating entrepreneurial and brilliant business talents I know," says DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of many high-profile executives who regularly play poker with Perenchio. (Other pals include Barry Diller, Leslie Moonves, and Kirk Kerkorian.) "And there's nothing in his early experience that you would think would give him a real leg up." Katzenberg laughs. "But look at the success of Univision. Where did that come from?"

Among his investments, Perenchio owned Spanish-language television stations in New York and L.A. in the late 1970s. In 1992 he teamed up with Televisa and Venezuelan programmer Venevision to acquire Univision from cardmaker Hallmark for $550 million. Perenchio's personal investment was about $33 million; if Univision does sell for about $13.8 billion, Perenchio will have made roughly 45 times his initial investment.

Of course, not everyone thinks Perenchio has been so smart. Televisa's 37-year-old CEO, Emilio Azcárraga Jean, whose father, a flamboyant Mexican billionaire known as "El Tigre," helped Perenchio buy Univision, quit the Univision board in May of last year. He didn't give a reason, and he declines to comment, but people close to Azcarraga Jean say he didn't think Perenchio was sufficiently involved in running the business. Adding to the drama, Televisa and Univision have sued each other--each claiming the other is violating terms of the contract by which Televisa provides its shows and talent to Univision. Both companies declined to comment on the legal issues, but a Televisa executive confirms that his company thinks Univision could be doing better. "The [Hispanic] market is growing," says Alfonso de Angoitia, Televisa's executive vice president and chief financial officer. "But they have been unable to capture that growth in sales."

This is the media industry, however, where warring parties can suddenly become best friends--and many analysts think Televisa may be the most likely acquirer of Univision. U.S. law prohibits foreign companies from owning U.S. media properties, but Televisa could team up with a private-equity company to gain control of its sometime partner. And Azcarraga has made no secret of his ambition to expand the Televisa empire north of the border.

Influential Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen predicts that Disney (Research) and Time Warner (Research) ultimately won't make runs at Univision; Disney is focused on a content strategy, and Time Warner is busy fending off investor Carl Icahn. CBS and News Corp. would need to shed properties if they did a deal with Univision, to avoid running afoul of federal station-ownership rules. But there's little question both companies are interested. Perenchio poker pal Les Moonves, who runs CBS, is on record as coveting Univision ("They know what they're doing," he told FORTUNE. "They are an extremely well-run organization"), and Rupert Murdoch told investors on a recent conference call that News Corp. (Research) would take a closer look.

The upshot could be a bona fide bidding war with as many twists and turns as a telenovela, as would-be buyers try to figure out ways to structure deals and outmaneuver the competition--and Univision and its executives are forced onto center stage. The spotlight may end up fading Perenchio's suit. Then again, with a $1 billion payday on the way, he can certainly afford a new one.

FEEDBACK smehta@fortunemail.com

UNIVISION HOLDINGS

Holdings as a percent of 2004 revenue. Total: $1.78 billion

71% TELEVISION

Includes the Univision and TeleFutura broadcast networks, 62 television stations, and the Galavision cable network

1% ONLINE

Operates the Univision.com Spanish-language portal

18% RADIO

Univision Radio has 73 stations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico

10% MUSIC

Unit records and publishes music under the Univision, Fonovisa, La Calle, and Disa labels

REPORTER ASSOCIATE Jenny Mero contributed to this article. Top of page

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS