Venezuelan ex-patriot Eligio Cedeño has turned his attention to U.S. Hispanic television by making a major investment in Vme Media.
The Vme TV network in Miami has a reach of 70 million households, according to Mr. Cedeño, including 10.4 million Hispanic households.
The network's lineup features talk shows, telenovelas, adventure series and lifestyle programs, along with Vme Kids, a commercial channel promoting bilingual education.
Mr. Cedeño, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1964, and was an outspoken critic of the late Hugo Chavez, told HispanicBusiness that his investment group "controls a little over 70 percent of the total shares of Vme Media," but declined to disclose the value of his investment.
Group of investors
The Vme purchase was made through CEDEL International Investments, an investment fund Mr. Cedeño manages.
His partners include Juan José Rendón, "whom I have known since I lived in Venezuela," and former AOL executive Eduardo Hauser, "who presides over the board and has previous experience in the public media industry in the U.S.," Mr. Cedeño said.
As with the amount of his investment, Mr. Cedeño declined to comment about his citizenship and that of his fellow investors.
The Federal Communications Commission had a longstanding rule forbidding noncitizens from owning more than 25 percent of a U.S. television or radio station. However, that rule was governed by tradition rather than law, and was lifted by commissioners last month.
Related: Networks Vie for U.S. Hispanic TV Viewers
Vme (pronounced "veh-meh," Spanish for "watch me"), was launched in 2007 as a public-private partnership between PBS station WNET out of Newark, N.J., Spanish media conglomerate PRISA and several venture firms, according to public-media publication Current.org.
PRISA owned a 42.6 percent share in Vme before CEDEL gained a controlling interest in April, according PRISA's website. Media Moves, which covers Hispanics in the media industry, noted at the time that CEDEL's share was "expected to increase."
Escape from Venezuela
Mr. Cedeño, who attended the University Simon Rodríguez in Caracas and earned a degree in business administration, started a stock business during a financial crisis in Venezuela, where he also bought financially troubled banks and turned them around.
He controlled a pair of banks in his native Venezuela prior to running afoul of the Chavez regime. He was jailed in 2007 on allegations that he had sidestepped the country's currency controls to earn U.S. dollars, which he denied.
In 2009, Judge Maria Afiumi unexpectedly ordered Mr. Cedeño set free while awaiting trial.
Making an exit worthy of James Bond, complete with backpack paraglider and a satchel of money to bribe his way across the Caribbean, according to a Miami New Times report, Mr. Cedeño arrived in Florida -- where he was again detained, this time by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"'Escaping' is a strong word to describe an act during which my sole purpose was to reach safety and protect myself from a stark persecution by the Venezuelan government," Mr. Cedeño said. "Trying to reach safety causes great anxiety that only ends when you reach a country where human rights are respected."
He applied for political asylum in 2010, which he was granted in May 2011, and remained a vigorous opponent of Mr. Chavez till the Venezuelan president's death earlier this year.
Prior to his move into Vme, Mr. Cedeño invested in SOi TV, a Miami-based interactive TV network targeted at U.S. Hispanics. "That investment did not go as predicted," he said, "and so I decided to take control of the operation."
While changing SOi's strategy, Mr. Cedeño and his partners got a chance to "make a greater investment, Vme Media."
He relishes the editorial freedom of the U.S. media. Venezuelan media are "heavily dependent on the government," he said, "which frequently subordinates media independence to the state's wishes."
Asked if he was looking at other media properties in the U.S., Mr. Cedeño said that "all of our focus and resources are dedicated to advancing our Vme Media project."
However, he added, "the Hispanic media industry in the U.S. still has great opportunities for growth."
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