Wednesday, Sep 20, 2006
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Caracol revamps South Florida station

The new owners of WGEN-TV are ready to roll out a fresh slate of Spanish-language programming.

BY CHRISTINA HOAG
choag@MiamiHerald.com

Camilo Cano Busquets is a hard man to reach these days.

The international vice president for Colombian TV powerhouse Caracol International is wrapping up the production of a sandy territorial-battle reality show on remote beaches in the Dominican Republic.

The show, Desafío 20.06, is one of the hits Caracol will import from home for the relaunch on Sept. 18 of WGEN-TV, its first U.S. TV station. Caracol bought a 25 percent stake in the little-watched station last December with an eye to turning it into a competitive player on South Florida's burgeoning Spanish-language TV dial.

Caracol is betting on programming such as Desafío 20.06, which will air in the 9 p.m. prime-time slot where the telenovela usually reigns.

''The Miami Hispanic audience has evolved and matured over the past decade, '' said Cano by e-mail. ``They are now more discriminating and particular about their viewing options. They demand and appreciate alternatives.''

WGEN under Caracol joins a formidable array of rivals vying for Hispanic viewers and advertising dollars -- four network affiliates and two small independent stations.

In the past, WGEN had a hodgepodge of programming and made little headway against its rivals. But local media watchers say that could change with Caracol's strong catalog of shows, which includes hit telenovelas such as Pedro el Escamoso and La Baby Sister, and a deep pocketbook for the high investment that TV takes.

WGEN now has a shot, said Gustavo Godoy, a veteran of the local television industry and publisher of Vista magazine.

''These people have a track record,'' he said. ``They know television.''

Although WGEN transmits from Key West, it's a full power station that beams throughout South Florida and has must-carry coverage on local cable systems.

Caracol's majority partner is the investment arm of parent company Caracol Television's owners, Colombia's Santo Domingo family. A minority stake is held by the station's previous owner, Los Angeles ophthalmologist and media entrepreneur William De La Peña.

The station will air programming from 2 p.m. to midnight weekdays and 5 p.m. to midnight weekends, with the rest of the days filled with paid programming. The schedule will include children's shows, a dating show for older people, a variety show, a pet show and a sprinkling of the stalwart soap operas.

''They're not going to rely on novelas by any means, although they have them,'' said Julio Rumbaut, a Hispanic-media consultant in Miami. ``They seem to be coming at this through a counter-programming strategy.''

WGEN's main competitors will be the region's two other independent stations: the recent start-up WSBS-TV Mega 22, which is aiming at the Hispanic youth audience, and WJAN-TV 41, which has built a solid following in the Cuban community.

During a recent conference call with analysts, WSBS' Chief Creative Officer Cynthia Hudson-Fernández said WGEN would not be an obstacle.

''Their programming strategy is very different from ours,'' she said. ``Obviously we will be monitoring all our competitors. WGEN has not had any ratings trends at all.''

Consultant Rumbaut noted that advertising will be a fight. Networks have more access to national advertisers; independent stations must rely on local businesses. ''It's a very limited market,'' he said.

Caracol executives are confident they can lure advertisers with viewership numbers, as well as product integration.

''I know there's loyalties, and it's going to take a while,'' said Lourdes Díaz, WGEN's executive vice president of sales and marketing. ``But I don't think it's a big risk. Once I saw their programming, they sold me. This is an opportunity to fine-tune a station for the South Florida market.''