The first thing visitors to the office of Rolando Santos invariably notice is the massive, glass-encased Mexican flag that seems to loom over his desk. It’s an exuberant touch, as office furnishings go.
The imposing tricolor flag – a gift from former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo – also serves as a pointed reminder of Mr. Santos’ heritage, and all that he’s had to overcome professionally because of it.
“I was part of the first wave of Mexican-American reporters in television, and I’ve been called a wetback, a spic, and a greaser,” he says matter-of-factly during a rare break from the din of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. “I’ve been told to get that greaser off the air and to change my name from Rolando Santos to Ronald Sanders, which I never did, by the way.”
Today such slights are a distant memory. In February, Mr. Santos was named executive vice-president and general manager of CNN Headline News, capping a remarkable career at Cable News Network and industry-wide.
Mr. Santos joined CNN in 1993, first as executive producer and then as director of CNN Spanish and special programming, which produced Noticiero CNN Internacional. On the heels of organizational successes in those roles, he was later named vice-president, executive vice-president, and ultimately president of CNN en Español.
Mr. Santos in fact helped launch CNN en Español, playing a key role in the development of the network’s business plan and programming and overseeing the integration of new technology. He later did the same thing for network launches in Spain and Turkey before being tapped for his current assignment.
“A lot of the server technology today is commonplace but back then it was brand new,” says Mr. Santos, who ascribes his steady rise at CNN in part to his aggressiveness with unproven technologies.
“We created the technology. We built the network [CNN en Español] around the business model and were able to avoid a lot of problems that way. Instead of trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole, we in effect made a square hole to fit a square peg.”
In Headline News, Mr. Santos inherits an established network that is clearly surging in several areas. Total viewership is up 50 percent this year. Among adults age 18 to 49, viewing levels are up 72 percent. In primetime, the network’s total viewer ratings have increased 59 percent, and its primetime take of the 18-to-49 demographic is up 75 percent.
“My job is to continue the story that we have, and it’s a phenomenal story,” says Mr. Santos, who succeeded Teya Ryan as executive vice-president and general manager of Headline News. “More than half of our audience is in that 18-to-49-year-old demo, and a third of the audience is in an almost unheard-of 18-to-32-year-old demo. And that’s all kinds of people, Hispanics and African Americans and white folks and all the other kinds of people, that we’re talking about.”
Yet for all the praise and ratings share that Headline News has garnered in the past year, the network continues to face formidable challenges from the likes of Fox News Channel (which currently leads in overall cable news ratings) and MSNBC. The ubiquity of the Internet also is being felt. A year ago, Headline News debuted an on-screen format that was suggestive of a Web page. The network plans to revise the format this month, according to Mr. Santos.
“The whole world is competition right now. The reality is, we’re competing with many more sources of information. The proliferation of not just cable but the Internet has affected all of us,” the 45-year-old broadcaster says. “But it’s also opened up some opportunities. I’ve launched three networks in three years in three different parts of the world, and every one was launched with cutting-edge technology that in most cases didn’t exist before we went to a manufacturer and said we need to develop this to be able to do that. So I’m very much used to being way at the forefront of things rather than following trends. That’s what Headline News is all about.”
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