Barbara Laurence thinks the time is right for another entry in the race to capture Hispanic viewers. That’s why she’s teamed with partner Carlos Vasallo to launch Vasallovision, a network featuring Mexican films that airs on six TV stations reaching 10.5% of U.S Hispanic homes. Her goal is to grow the network through the purchase of more full-service stations until she’s got 70% of Hispanics covered.
With several broadcast networks including Univision and Telemundo now vying for Spanish-speaking viewers in the U.S., some believe the market is saturated.
But not Barbara Laurence.
“There is room for more players and for everybody to have a piece of that very large pie,” says the longtime TV station investor and broadcaster. “And it’s growing.”
To prove her point, she and partner Carlos Vasallo, a Mexican motion picture and TV entrepreneur, are slowly rolling out a new network for the U.S. Hispanic market filled with Mexican movies from Vasallo’s extensive library.
Broadcasting is key to serving the market, Laurence says. English speakers have scores of networks to choose from, but many Spanish speakers have only a handful because they can’t afford cable or satellite, she says. “The more disenfranchised the group, the more they rely on their broadcast outlets.”
Today, the nascent Vasallovision reaches about 10.5% of the nearly 13 million Hispanic homes in the U.S. through six stations: KAZH Houston; KMCC Las Vegas (Laughlin); KQCK Cheyenne, Wyo.; KTRG San Antonio, Texas; WBKI Louisville, Ky.; and KDQK-CA Denver (Aurora).
Laurence has a controlling ownership interest in all of the stations except KAZH. That’s a former Pappas Telecasting station that was taken over by lenders after Pappas filed for bankruptcy. It and nine other former Pappas stations are now being run by Bert Ellis and Dan Sullivan through New World TV LLC.
Laurence notes that the network is being broadcast on a subchannel of WBKI, which is primarily a CW affiliate, but the subchannel is widely carried by local cable systems.
Laurence plans to extend the reach of Vasallovision, principally through acquisition of full-service TV stations. Her goal is to reach at least 70% of Hispanic homes.
By the end of this year, she says, she hopes to buy stations in six to 10 additional markets, including Los Angeles and New York, the No. 1 and No. 2 Hispanic markets, respectively. Together, they account for 24% of Hispanic homes.
Laurence believe Vasallovision has the right programming to carve out a profitable niche for itself.
“The movies are high quality films that families like to watch together,” she says. “It’s programming that reminds [Mexican-Americans] of home, programming they may have grown up with.”
By offering movies, Vasallovision gives Hispanic viewership an alternative to the telenovellas that dominant the programming grids of Univision and Telemundo, the leading Spanish-language broadcast networks. “It’s counterprogramming,” Laurence says.
And Vasallovision doesn’t have to draw huge audiences, she says. “All we are looking for is about a 1.2 rating and a 7 share,” she says. “We are just looking for a couple of points here and there and we think we can be very successful.”
Vasallovision runs movies every day between 2 and 11 p.m., Laurence says. The rest of the time is filled with children’s programming, community affairs and infomercials.
Another key player in the venture is Fusion Communications of Davenport, Iowa. In addition to providing remote master control for Laurence’s stations, it downlinks the nine-hour Vasallovision movie block that originates in Mexico and uplinks it for U.S. distribution.
Fusion also has a stake in two of Laurence’s Vasallovision stations, KQCK Cheyenne and KDQK-CA Denver.
Laurence says she became interested in the Hispanic TV market when she was hired in 1997 to help Walter Ulloa find stations to build Entravision.
What impressed her was the low barrier to entry. “If you could be in 20 markets, you could be in over 80% of the [Hispanic] homes. You could never do that in the Anglo market. It could never happen.”
Laurence became convinced that the movie format would work well in Hispanic homes from watching the success of Harriscope’s KWHY Los Angeles in the late 1990s.The station aired some of the same movies that are now in the Vasallo library.
“You could pretty much know what kind of market share and revenue you could garner when you had these movies on,” she says.
Harriscope sold KWHY to Telemundo in 2001 for $239 million.
Vasallovision is Laurence’s third run at launching a Spanish-language network over the past decade.
She first partnered with a group that included Pablo Barbachano, an operator of a movie channel in Mexico. But the planned SuTeVe failed to gain traction because Barbachano’s movie library simply wasn’t big enough to support a broadcast network, Laurence says. Plus, she adds, the group didn’t have enough stations lined up.
Laurence later teamed with Bob Behar and others in Bela Broadcasting, but the partners couldn’t agree on strategy and decided to part ways. “My vision was always to do movies,” Laurence says.
Bela’s two stations, KBEH Los Angeles (Oxnard), and KMOH Phoenix, have been transferred to Hero Broadcasting, owned by Behar. They now air MTVtr3s, a Spanish-language music network.
Vasallovision started taking shape after Laurence was introduced in 2008 to Carlos Vasallo, whose extensive media holdings include two movie channels now being distributed on DirecTV, Cine Estelar and Cine Nostalgia.
According to Laurence, Vasallo shared her conviction that movies would draw enough viewers to support a network and he had plenty of them, more than 2,000.
Neither Vasallo nor Laurence would discuss financial details or other terms of their joint venture. “The deal is, she handles the stations and I handle the network,” says Vasallo without elaboration.
Finding the right partner is not the only trouble Laurence has had. During the recent downturn, two of her stations — KTRG San Antonio and KMCC Las Vegas — fell into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “One of the financial partners backed out of its commitment,” she explains.
The good news is that KMCC is now out of bankruptcy, KTRG is on the way and Laurence believes she is in good enough financial shape to move ahead with her station acquisition plans.
“I think we have the right content and the right financial partners,” she says. “And I think the timing is right. The Hispanic market is much larger now than when I got started on this.
“It seems as if the stars have aligned themselves.”