Houstonia: Can Univision 45, Houston's Spanish-Language News Leader, Keep Its Edge?

Mar 21, 2017

As it jockeys month-by-month with Telemundo for Houston’s ratings crown, Univision looks to the future in more ways than one.

By: Adam Doster

January 25 is a charged day inside the headquarters of Univision 45, Houston’s oldest and most influential Spanish-language television station. A surreal one, too. President Donald Trump (President Trump!) is preparing to sign an executive order directing the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Said structure would divide, literally and metaphorically, the country from which Univision broadcasts and the country in which a significant slice of its staff and viewers have roots. Like senior news anchor Raul Peimbert, California-born but Mexican-raised.

Peimbert landed at Univision 45 in 2012, a transplant from the media company’s Los Angeles affiliate, where he’d served for nine years. This was in no sense a demotion; in the world of Spanish-language television news, Houston is a destination, not a stepping stone. By the start of this decade, Univision newscasts at 5 and 10 p.m. were the region’s most-watched in three key demographics (adults 18–34, 18–49 and 25–54), regardless of language. Now it jockeys month-by-month with Telemundo 47, its most direct competitor, for Houston’s ratings crown.

“For years, media people were predicting this: One day, the Spanish stations will move past the English stations,” says Mike McGuff, an independent media reporter in Houston. “That finally happened, maybe even faster than people predicted.”

From editorial meeting to editorial meeting Peimbert glides, greeting colleagues with hearty handshakes and pecks on the cheek, ceramic coffee mug filled to the brim. His white shirt is starched, his dark suit and silk tie pressed, his gray-speckled hair crisply parted. He’s 55, a classic broadcaster in the Brokaw or Cronkite mold—steady, disciplined, stentorian.

Journalism has taken Peimbert to every corner of the Americas. He’s interviewed more than 40 Latin American presidents, including the last six Mexican heads of state. He once anchored 14 hours of live coverage from earthquake-rattled southern California. He’s scored sit-downs with Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. At 31, as Telemundo’s national news anchor, he became one of the youngest people in American news history to hold a network newsreader position. (Peter Jennings clipped him at ABC, by five years.) On his shelf rest 12 Emmys and a Peabody Award, which he earned as part of a Univision public service campaign, in 2007.

“He’s very calm under the storm,” says Rebecca Suarez, a reporter and weekend anchor at Univision 45. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on.” Michelle Galvan, Peimbert’s 29-year-old co-anchor, describes him as “that dad that everybody wants.”

At Peimbert’s desk, not far from the studio’s entrance, two dozen laminated media badges are pinned to his cubicle wall, forming something of a checkered collage: the White House media pool, the 2015 Texas gubernatorial inauguration, a Houston Texans press box pass. Beside his flat-screen computer monitor is a small television, tuned to CNN. There’s the president, at the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, signing an executive order that he pledges will reshape American immigration enforcement.

“A nation without borders is not a nation,” Trump says. He leans on the podium casually, as if the platform were his birthright. “Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders.”

Peimbert throws his jacket over the back of his chair, stores his ear piece in a drawer, and slips on a pair of reading glasses. They sit low on his nose, and slide lower still when he scrunches his face in Trump’s direction, concentrating on the language, absorbed in the historic moment, trying to make sense of it all for this evening’s script—at Univision, the anchors write all the text they personally read off the teleprompter.

“When it comes to public safety, there’s no room for politics,” Trump continues. “We want safe communities, and we demand safe communities for everyone.”

The Spanish-speaking population here is surging—some demographers predict that by 2050, 60 percent of Houston residents will be Latino. With this new administration in Washington making nativism a central, if unspoken, component of its governing agenda, the coverage that Univision 45 provides now, exactly 30 years after the station first went on the air, might be more important than ever.

A red clock ticks behind Peimbert, second by second; one show is bearing down on the staff, and another will follow five hours after that.

What, exactly, do his audience, his community, his people need to know?

Jose Adán Treviño, Univision 45’s co-founder, will tell you he got into the media business “by accident.” It was the late ’70s, and Univision, then called Spanish International Network, was looking for a foothold in Houston. Executives approached Treviño, a pharmacist by trade and an entrepreneur well-connected in the burgeoning Mexican-American community, wondering if he could recruit a small team of investors, maybe put in a bid for a frequency that had just opened up.

At the time, the television landscape for Houston’s Spanish speakers was completely barren. And the need was self-evident. The 1980 U.S. Census would soon provide hard evidence for what everyone with a pulse already knew to be true. “It was clear,” says Alex Lopez Negrete, founder of Latino marketing agency Lopez Negrete Communications. “The demographics of the country were changing, and changing significantly.”

Securing a high-power license from the Federal Communications Commission proved both time-consuming (nine years) and expensive ($1 million in legal fees). Finding partners for Pueblo Broadcasting, Treviño’s nascent company, was more straightforward. “It was a good business opportunity!” Treviño says now. “And since there weren’t any competitors, we were able to get support right away.”

Univision 45 went live on September 18, 1987, with a 1,500-foot transmitter tower and a staff of 35. The studio was set in a converted warehouse on Kirby, south of the Astrodome. The programming formula, as in other cities, was simple: 24 hours of news, sports, variety shows, and telenovelas, the soapy dramas produced south of the border by Mexico’s gargantuan TV company, Televisa, in which beautiful people argue beautifully. A survey taken six months after the launch found that 82 percent of Houston Hispanics were already tuning in.

“The need for information was unbelievable!” Lopez Negrete says. “And the [Univision] team never shied away from getting it under the nails, rolling up their sleeves, and being part of the community, reflecting the community. They went in hard. That earned them far more than just the station badge.”

Local news coverage came slowly, starting with two-minute news capsules sprinkled throughout the day, plus an hour-long public-affairs show, Canal 45 y la Comunidad, which ran on Friday nights. Noticias 45, the 5 p.m. weekday newscast, entered the rotation in April 1990, with a notably DIY aesthetic. Volunteers and friends built and painted the sets, experimenting with colors and designs on the fly.

Advertising, thankfully, was easy to sell—Univision was offering a direct line to what was then a largely untapped consumer market. Within a few years, sales rose to more than $6 million annually, three times the initial investment. Hispanic Business magazine listed Pueblo Broadcasting as the fastest-growing Latino-owned company nationwide. “That segment of the population that wanted it, it kept growing,” Treviño says. “We were thought of as heroes for doing what we did.”

By 1994, Univision acquired the station outright. Concept, proven.

General manager David Loving runs the shop now, in a much larger compound than Treviño ever had, near the Southwest Freeway and Sage Road. The six-story red-brick building, which Univision bought in 2006, houses Univision 45, UniMás (a youth-oriented station), five radio stations, various digital entities, and 150 employees. It’s one of the company’s largest and most sophisticated outposts.

A cadre of bright news vans shares the parking lot with a few huge satellite dishes, pearly bowls open to the heavens. The newsroom occupies the ground floor, below a national control hub filled with monitors. A live feed is piped in from all 43 Univision-owned and -operated stations in the corporate portfolio, which three technicians observe round the clock. “If there’s a flaw somewhere, it pops up on this board,” Loving says, “and these guys go to work.”

The third floor features the Uforia Lounge, a 300-capacity custom night club, where Univision stages corporate events and a monthly concert series. An appearance last February from CNCO, the Latin boy band, “was like a Beatles concert,” Loving says.

There are nearly 700,000 Hispanic households in the Greater Houston media market. Spanish is spoken, to some degree, in 90 percent of those homes. It’s a lot of potential eyeballs. And while Univision’s English-language counterparts split viewers across a half-dozen channels, Telemundo 47 is the station’s only true rival on the dial. So yes, part of Univision’s success in Houston comes down to simple math.

It’s not like anyone is contractually obligated to watch the news every night, though. You still have to put on a good show.

Watching a live Univision telecast in person is strangely serene. Zen, even. It’s rare to find a setting so isolated, so tranquil.

The walls and floor are black. Everything is soundproofed. Only four or five people occupy the studio at any given time, including the on-air talent. There aren’t even cameramen—the cameras are robotic, and operated by remote control. (Think R2-D2 but taller, with an HD lens attached.) How can an anchor lose focus if there’s nothing for her to see or hear?

At the time of our visit, Michelle Galvan is presenting twice daily, alongside Peimbert after primetime and with Osvaldo Corral in the early evening. (In March, she’ll leave KXLN to host Primer Impacto, Univision’s national newsmagazine program.) For her first show on January 25, while Peimbert types away in the back, she assumes her standard position behind the desk. She and Corral crack their necks, adjust their clothes, fiddle with their phones. In their earpieces, they can hear an English command, subtle but insistent: “Standby—open on A. Here we go: 10, 9 … 6 to open … 2 to open, 1 … rolling!”

The chaos, the action, actually takes place in the control room upstairs. That’s where producers and technicians direct traffic. Wearing headsets and facing a dizzying bank of screens, they throw switches, sync up translations, cue up graphics, splice in commercials. Work that looks technically overwhelming to an outsider is, for them, second-nature. Buttons flash, computers buzz, phones ring. English and Spanish are deployed interchangeably. (“Un minuto. One minute!”)

There’s at least one word that everyone, regardless of native tongue, can pick up easily: Trump. The tape rolls at 4:58 p.m., and the crew spends the first eight minutes reviewing the president’s immigration órdenes ejecutivas. We see soundbites from his speech. A field report is filed from D.C., explaining in detail the potential consequences. Then we cut to Rebecca Suarez, standing by for local reactions. Earlier in the day, she’d interviewed a Mexican-American woman whose nephew had died trying to cross the border. If the feds built a permanent wall, would desperate people start to take riskier routes?

It’s the type of package on which Univision 45 prides itself. It has the same beats as the news that English speakers are used to watching, the same rhythms and rigor. The emphasis is just shifted, ever so slightly. “We will cover that administration just like we do anybody else,” says news director Martha Kattan, “but with a focus on our community—to inform them of their rights and what they can do.”

“Relevance” is something of a station buzzword. Univision offers energetic coverage of Latin American affairs, particularly in Mexico and Central America. They try to showcase what Peimbert calls “the everyday, extraordinary good news from the Hispanic community.” If it bleeds, it doesn’t necessarily lead. And staffers think of themselves as something akin to cultural interpreters. It’s not enough to describe what happens in Houston on any given day. As one producer stresses during an afternoon editorial meeting, “we have to explain what this all means.”

 Over on the North Loop at North Shepherd Drive, the news team at Telemundo 47 is scrambling to put on its own early-evening broadcast. To be fair, it’s actually three broadcasts rolled into one; for at least a year, Univision’s chief rival has run live local coverage at both 4 and 4:30 p.m., ahead of the standard 5 p.m. offering. That’s 90 minutes of pre-dinner information, general manager Tony Canales will remind anyone within earshot, a full hour more than Houston’s original Spanish-language giant.

For years, Telemundo was an under-resourced ratings straggler. Anchors worked on a regional show out of Dallas, to which Houston-based reporters would contribute segments remotely. Then Comcast absorbed both Telemundo and its parent company, NBCUniversal, in 2009. That’s when the cash started to flow.

“Before, the resources were not here, so one does the best you can,” says Canales, who arrived in 2012. “It’s been a cultural change, to be honest with you.”

Canales stands by, hair slicked back just so, as producers and on-air talent shuffle past each other frantically. Over four of the past six months, his 10.p.m. newscast has beat everyone in Houston among adults ages 18–49.

The evidence of investment is everywhere. Bodies and desks are wedged into a newsroom built to accommodate far fewer; in just five years, the news staff has tripled to 42, the exact size of Univision’s. (That includes Telemundo Responde, a new consumer investigative unit.) There’s a dedicated mobile app with live streaming and weather alerts. A second studio. Fresh on-screen graphics. Crystal-clear camera work. A staff kitchen with steel appliances. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the station went so far as to erect a full set outside the George R. Brown Convention Center, providing on-site coverage of the downtown festivities.

“It’s contagious. It’s very exciting,” Canales says. “We’re onto something here.”

Fighting off a neighboring upstart is just one of the challenges Univision 45 faces in 2017. In New York, its own parent company is trying to navigate murky financial waters, having endured a costly leveraged buyout in 2007, financed with $10 billion in debt at the height of a market bubble. To reach a younger and more diverse audience, they’ve made splashy acquisitions in the English-language digital space, grabbing the African-American site The Root, the entire Gawker Media portfolio (for $135 million), and a minority stake in the satirical news site The Onion. But corporate revenue fell by 8 percent in the third quarter of 2016, leading to company-wide layoffs. And a long-rumored public offering, which analysts expect will raise $1 billion, has been stalled for nearly two years. That’s cash that could, in theory, ease debt pressures while providing individual stations with additional capital to stave off Telemundo. (“We are in a quiet period,” says Loving, Univision 45’s GM, “so I really can’t talk about the IPO.”)

Then there’s the puzzle of connecting with a population that’s huge, no doubt, but also increasingly multilingual, and potentially less reliant on Spanish-dominant coverage than their parents or grandparents. Univision’s own company prospectus warns that “demand for our Spanish-language programming could be adversely impacted by competing English-language programming, including programming primarily in English [that targets] the bilingual U.S. Hispanic population.” According to Jesse Holcomb, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, “media companies have really not yet unlocked what it is that younger Hispanic news audiences really hunger for, and what will drive their loyalty.”

Univision staffers in Houston, for their part, welcome the budding rivalry with Telemundo. “You feel that competition when you’re out in the field and you’re trying to get that exclusive,” says Suarez. “It raises our work to a higher level.” And journalists in both newsrooms are absolutely convinced that Houstonians will continue to seek out their coverage, on their televisions or tablets or cellphones, if it maintains its trademark cultural fluency.

Across town at Telemundo’s headquarters, Canales likes to watch the broadcast unfold inside his state-of-the-art control room. Live shots of a jackknifed 18-wheeler beam in from the telecóptero, which parks at Hobby and whose signal Telemundo shares with a few other English-language counterparts. He giggles to himself as meteorologist Carlos Robles, on location at Discovery Green, fiddles with the station’s newest toy: an “augmented reality” weather device that creates dynamic, 3D images of storms and atmospheric events. “Did you see that!?” Canales whispers under his breath, as Robles—a one-time Univision reporter—loads up the latest forecast. “Look at that thing!” Then, for kicks, Canales pulls out his iPhone and clicks on the Telemundo 47 app; since there’s a 20-second delay between cable and the Internet, he can relive the magic all over again.

Amidst the gadgetry, it’s hard not to notice the two largest televisions in the room, mounted above the director’s head, side-by-side on the front wall. The left is showing Telemundo’s live feed. Queued up on the right? Univision 45.

Here in Houston, Telemundo is expanding its reach like never before. But they know better than to ignore Raul Peimbert.

That voice, rich and sturdy, is God-given. “My grandfather and my father sounded exactly the same,” Peimbert says. The three of them would prank Peimbert’s high school girlfriend, passing the phone around mid-conversation to see if she’d notice a generational shift on the opposite line. By 12, he was lugging an ancient tape recorder and microphone to the theater in his hometown of Veracruz, stopping the touring actors or musicians for impromptu interviews, convincing them it was part of some elaborate school project. He secured a grunt job at the local station in Guadalajara at 14—“very amateur work,” he says, “but I started seeing this profession up close, and I fell in love with it.”

Five years later, in 1984, a news director in Veracruz was looking for an anchor and asked if Peimbert might be interested. “I told the director, ‘Are you sure? Nobody is going to believe me! I’m very young!’” The 19-year-old could grow a mustache, which helped. A jacket and tie added a few years. The pre-show palpitations subsided eventually, too. Peimbert was on his way.

Three decades on, he lives for days like January 25, when the news is consequential and immediate. Univision 45’s 10 p.m. broadcast is preceded by an episode of El Color de la Pasión; the final shot depicts a veiled brunette wailing in agony. From there, Peimbert receives his initial cue. And over the next 16 minutes, he quarterbacks substantive and uninterrupted coverage of President Trump’s immigration machinations.

There are interviews with analysts, press conference cut-ins, footage from Mexico of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s response (subtitled, “Indignación”). Galvan sits down in studio for a brief chat with Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, discussing the future of “sanctuary cities.” It feels almost like an impromptu immigration special, appointment viewing for a slice of Houston thirsty for knowledge and clarity, for reassurance. Peimbert lays his elbow on the desk, his Univision-branded laptop shoved to the side, watching it all unfold.

For now, Peimbert says, he’s exactly where he wants to be. But if an executive position in the company opens up down the road, maybe in three or four years, he wouldn’t mind ceding the spotlight. He has spent his entire adult life on set. And he knows there are others in this increasingly important industry who are equally ambitious. “The new generation is fantastic,” he says. “Very dynamic.”

Fifteen minutes later, Univision’s crew assembles as the program comes to a close. Tomorrow’s show will include a field piece about a popular local coffee shop. Assuredly more Trump coverage, too. They smile their winning smiles, banter like old friends. And Peimbert concludes the appearance like he does most others: with a warm smile and a little nod of the head.

Hasta la mañana.”

Source: Houstonia Magazine

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