Burbank-based network Estrella TV may be the future face of Spanish language broadcasting in the United States.
That's what Lenard Liberman hopes, anyway.
The main creative force behind the almost 3-year-old, 59-affiliate broadcast group, Liberman believes his approach will eventually challenge such giant Hispanic networks as Univision and Televisa for supremacy.
"We try to understand what's important to the U.S. Hispanic market and produce television for that market, not import programming that's relevant to another market, which is what our competition does," explained the Stanford-educated Liberman, 50, who is also a member of the California Bar. "We do research to understand our brand, to continue to have a great perspective on the U.S.-based Hispanic."
So, rather than a prime-time schedule heavy with the Mexican telenovelas and soccer matches the older networks rely on, Estrella goes for a more reality-TV influenced collection of game, talk, news, talent, comedy and music shows. Almost all of the programs are produced at the two Burbank studio complexes owned by Estrella's parent company, Liberman Broadcasting, and some 500 part-time and full-time workers are employed at the headquarters.
And while the Estrella plan hasn't slain any giants yet, it is, by industry measures, succeeding.
"There has been growth in people watching Estrella and the prime time rating," noted Deana Myers, a senior analyst who follows Hispanic broadcast networks for media business data assessor SNL Kagan.
"And they're certainly getting more ad dollars now. It keeps going on an upward path," she added. "We estimate that their net ad revenues for this year will be $21.8 million; for last year, our estimate was $17.1 million. That's really good for a small, startup network only in its third year."
Recent Nielsen ratings put Estrella in the fourth place among Hispanic broadcast networks with an average viewership of around 200,000 -- well behind market leaders Univision, Telemundo and Telefutura, but ahead of some half-dozen others, including the well-financed Azteca.
The new MundoFox network, launched earlier this month, has not been tracked by Nielsen yet. But its very existence, backed by a giant global conglomerate, is due to the same forces that have made Estrella a good bet.
According to the 2010 Census, people of Hispanic ancestry are the fastest growing minority in the U.S., numbering 50.5 million, up from 46.9 million just two years earlier.
"Because of the census, there are more dollars going into the market from companies increasing their advertising budgets and, also, from new advertisers coming into the market," Myers said.
With recent decreases in immigration from Mexico, Liberman noted, the fastest growing part of the nation's Hispanic population is U.S.-born. He figures they relate more to what's popular on English language TV than the long-form soap operas their parents or grandparents loved.
So, as the guy who's responsible for practically all of Estrella's show concepts, Liberman tries to mold what he sees in other media to his target audience's sensibilities.
"We aim to entertain the audience," said Liberman, a Valley Village resident and self-proclaimed
voracious TV watcher.
"Oftentimes, what we see doing that could be seen on a general market English station, sometimes it could be seen on a station in Brazil or Japan or some other country," he said. "I just look for things that seem fun or exciting to me -- I do all the programming -- and if it looks like it's going to resonate with our audience, I'll find out how to adapt it.
"Very few formats would work just directly as they are in the Hispanic market," Liberman cautioned. "You can take a general dance type program, but you have to change it pretty materially to make it appeal to our market."
Ergo, Estrella's "Dancing With the Stars" equivalent, "Mi Sue o es Bailar" ("My Dream Is to Dance") adds to the mix of celebrity and professional hoofers a segment that enables each show's winner to grant the wish of a poor Latino family, such as providing nursing school tuition for a young farmworker who cares for her diabetic brother.
The network's top-rated show is "Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento" ("I Have Talent, Lots of Talent"). It's their version of "America's Got Talent."
"Estudio 2," Estrella's pop music showcase, incorporates comedy skits and amateur acts on its high tech, video-and-light-show ready stages -- which, like many aspects of Estrella's shows, were the work of general audience craftspeople, in this case the guy who designed "American Idol's" set.
While Liberman seems to be in tune with his audience, his ideas aren't always viable in the increasingly mainstream world that Hispanic television is evolving into. Earlier this month, Estrella canceled a comic show that had been running on the local, Liberman-owned station, KRCA Channel 62, for years before the network was born, due to complaints about host Jose Luis' homophobic jokes.
Then there was the 2009 Estrella game show "Gana La Verde" ("Win the Green").
"It was kind of like 'Fear Factor,' but the prize was the services of a top-notch immigration law firm to pursue your legal papers," Liberman said with a sly grin. "The show was hugely successful with our audience, but advertisers and other folks didn't quite appreciate it as much, so we canceled the show."
But that kind of edgy entertainment was what Estrella had to do in the beginning, Liberman said.
"Because our budgets were limited, we had to make a splash somehow, so 'Gana la Verde' was a splash. Today, I'm a network across some 60 markets and you have to grow up, right? I think we've grown up and changed. Our shows really are just very entertaining and not controversial."
Liberman's 87-year-old father, Jose, who still comes to work every day, emigrated from Mexico to L.A. in the late 1940s. Initially in the pharmaceutical business, the elder Liberman bought a few radio stations, retired, and then formed Liberman Broadcasting with his son in 1988. The company now owns 20 radio (including Que Buena locally) and nine television stations around the country, making it the largest minority-owned outfit of its kind in the nation.
With almost all of its shows produced in-house to Hollywood-style standards, Estrella seems to be reflecting, like the larger culture itself, the blending of Anglo and Latin approaches.
"It's a great opportunity because we're a growing network and we're the largest producer of Spanish-language programming in the U.S.," noted Estrella's head of production Ivan Stoilkovich, a Hollywood veteran of Czech heritage. "We're really on the ground floor of developing the market and custom tailor our programming to Hispanics in the U.S."
Even though most of his on-air talent is still recruited from Mexico, the hemisphere's largest Spanish media producer, Liberman hopes to eventually change that, too.
"Really, the (U.S.) Hispanic market has not done a very good job of creating new and exciting programming and outside producers," Liberman said. "I'm starting to work with folks in the general market to produce shows for the Hispanic market, and the idea there is just to open up the creative talent to make more great programming that hasn't been produced before."
That's also his plan for survival in the seemingly ever-more-crowded Hispanic TV market.
"If you offer an alternative, I think you can be successful," Liberman said. "If you're going to do what everyone else does, it's very competitive and it could be very tough."
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