Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language television network, has agreed to buy WKFT-TV Channel 40 to gain a foothold in North Carolina and access to the state's burgeoning Hispanic population.
The deal, expected to close during the first quarter of 2003, will create the first North Carolina station to target Hispanics as its primary audience.
By buying the Fayetteville-based station, which broadcasts across the Triangle as well as in Fayetteville and Goldsboro, Los Angeles-based Univision will reach at least a third of all Hispanics living in North Carolina, according to Census data.
Between 1990 and 2000, North Carolina experienced more growth in its Hispanic population than any other state. There are nearly 400,000 Hispanics living in the state -- about 5 percent of the total population.
"It really recognizes and shows the importance of the growth of the Hispanic community in North Carolina," Ivan Parra, executive director of the Durham-based nonprofit El Centro Hispano, said of Univision's entry to the market. "It will be one of the most important vehicles in the state for communicating information to Hispanics."
A local station with Univision's broad reach -- the network's soap operas, variety and sports shows typically enjoy an 80 percent share among viewers who speak Spanish -- could have helped warn Hispanics not to use gas or charcoal grills to heat their homes after the Dec. 4 ice storm left thousands in the Triangle without power, for example, Parra said. Hispanics accounted for a disproportionate share of carbon monoxide poisonings because some could not understand public service announcements broadcast in English.
Richard Salat, WKFT's vice president and general manager, said the station was put up for sale in January. Its owner, Charlotte-based Bahakel Communications, signed an agreement for Univision to purchase the station for an undisclosed amount last week. Univision did not agree to offer jobs to the station's 20 employees as part of the deal, but there is a good chance some will be hired by the new owner, Salat said.
"It's still going to be a television station, and it's going to need business managers and sales staff," said Salat, who will yield his position as station manager to Maria Montano, who now manages Univision's station in Philadelphia, WUVP.
WKFT, which carries local news and other local programming, will operate under its current English-language format until the deal is closed. Montano would not comment on planned programming changes, but in other markets, Univision has started by offering Spanish-language programming now available on its national cable network and eventually expanded to include local programming, such as local news broadcasts.
WKFT's new format is likely to attract considerable interest from advertisers eager to sell goods and services to Hispanics, a growing market that many have yet to tap, said Eva May, managing director of Cary-based Espanol Marketing, which helps companies market to Spanish-speakers.
The local market for Spanish-language media is limited: Two Spanish-language radio stations and a few newspapers with limited circulation are about it, May said. Local advertisers generally don't want to pay for air time to advertise on Univision's national cable network. May expects the local station would offer area businesses, as well as government and community organizations, a less expensive way to target the local audience.
"Univision is such a strong network and they have such a strong sales team, I think it will bring a lot of new revenue into North Carolina," she said. "And I know it will have great ratings. If you speak Spanish, it's what you'll watch."
Rafael Osuba, executive producer of CDN-TV, a Raleigh company that produces local Spanish-language television programming, said Univision's arrival might force other media in the state to look afresh at the Hispanic market -- or risk losing revenue to the Spanish-language titan, which operates in more than 50 markets nationally.
"Let's face it, they're a business," Osuba said of the network. "They wouldn't be here unless they felt they could make money."
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