The Art of More
With a new entertainment president, Univision looks beyond traditional telenovelas to program for a multi-generational, multi-national audience.
Lourdes Diaz hit the ground running when she joined Univision last November as president of entertainment.
Actually, she says with a smile, “They gave me roller skates as soon as I signed the deal.”
“In my first 100 days, I had to integrate, restructure and activate a studio,” she says, referring to Univision Studios, overseen by executive vice-president Adrian Santucho. “I had to greenlight shows and get to know a company culture, but I have to say, it’s been amazing.”
Univision for years had dominated Spanish-language television with its telenovelas, the limited-run serial dramas beloved by Hispanic audiences. But with increased competition in the Spanish-language market from rival Telemundo and streaming giant Netflix, among others — not to mention an audience increasingly born in the U.S., bilingual and smartphone-savvy — the network needed fresh, original content. Which is why Diaz was hired.
Isaac Lee, chief content officer for Univision Communications Inc. (UCI) and Grupo Televisa, says she brings “experience in different areas of the content business, both in the U.S. and abroad,” adding: “I was impressed by her track record, her cultural duality and keen understanding of content and diverse audiences.”
Born in Miami to Cuban exiles, Diaz is a 20-year veteran of the industry. She joined Univision from Comedy Central International, where she was vice-president and head of global development and production. In that position, she localized shows like Drunk History for markets in the U.K. and Mexico and also produced original comedies.
Once at Univision, Diaz dug into audience research. “One of the key things we learned was, people wanted to watch television together,” she says. “Latinos, in many instances, live in multi-generational homes. It would be uncomfortable to put on something that you wouldn’t want to watch with your kid or your mother-in-law.”
So family-friendly programming in the early evening became a priority. But she decided “to be innovative by going old-school,” she says, replacing a telenovela with Pequeños Gigantes USA, a kids’ talent show. Airing the series four nights a week — from February into April at 8 p.m. — was a risk that paid off. The show averaged 1.8 million total viewers per episode, and 3.3 million watched some or all of the finale.
Another competition series, La Reina de la Canción (produced in-house at Univision Studios) slid into the 8 p.m. slot after Pequeños Gigantes ended its first season. The talent competition show — a search for the next female superstar of Mexican regional music — has a reality twist: the contestants share a house.
Content from La Reina is also distributed via Univision’s digital properties. “We have so many platforms to work with,” Diaz notes. “We have Univision Conecta, Univision.com…. We are using the whole power of UCI in a 360-degree approach.”
Univision will also be home to more scripted content. “We needed to signal a change right away,” she explains, “and the fastest way to do so was to [initially] go the non-scripted route. Scripted takes longer to develop.”
The biography series format has also proved popular. Earlier this year the network aired a series about the late singer Jenni Rivera. It followed that with El Chapo, a coproduction with Netflix about the notorious Mexican druglord. (Both were in the works before Diaz joined Univision.) Currently in production is a bio series on singer Luis Miguel.
To serve the network’s increasingly bilingual audience, English will be integrated into more shows, when it makes sense. Diaz cites Vino el Amor, a telenovela running at 9 p.m. “Parts of it are in English,” she says, “because it takes place in Sonoma County.”
And while Univision is branching out, telenovelas remain in the mix. “We’re looking at situations where we’re shortening the format, so there isn’t fatigue, and we’re telling more impactful stories,” Diaz says, citing La Doble Vida de Estela Carrillo, about a mother who crosses from Mexico into the U.S. with false papers to give her daughter a chance for a better life.
As a child, Diaz was often glued to the television set. “July or August in Miami is brutal,” she says. “I spent a lot of time watching reruns and movies. I escaped into the characters.”
When it came time for college, Diaz wanted to study television and film, but her father wasn’t enthusiastic. “He refused to pay for my college,” says Diaz, explaining that Cuban exiles like her parents tend to want their children to become lawyers and doctors.
Her father’s disapproval made Diaz determined to study her chosen field — and to succeed in it. Now with a career that has included positions at ICM Partners, Orion Pictures, Green Moon Productions, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, Diaz says her father — a regular viewer of Univision — couldn’t be prouder. “He actually knows what I do now,” she says with a laugh.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017