Univision Has Joined TVs Weekend Morning-News Wars

Christian Nodal and Olga Tanon, two popular Latino musicians, no doubt thought they were reaching core fans when they agreed to give interviews yesterday to Univision’s recently launched Sunday broadcast of “Despierta America.” But they were also helping the Spanish-language network make inroads in a weekend-morning news war that has grown increasingly competitive.

The weekday edition of “Despierta America” is a staple of Spanish-language TV in the U.S. and has been on the air for a quarter century, taking up four hours every morning. But on Sundays, as NBC and ABC have worked to expand their flagship morning shows, Univision had been content to air direct-response commercials and reruns. The company’s new management decided to change the weekend attitude.

“I’m a big fan of ‘Today’ and ‘CBS Sunday Morning’ and ‘Good Morning America,’ but we do a show for our people, and we know their needs. We know our community,” says Luz Maria Doria, who has worked as executive producer of “Despierta America” for a decade.

Producers at those programs likely aren’t focusing on “Despierta America,” but they might want to do so. The program is attracting a viewer with an average age of 60 — five years younger than the average viewer of NBC’s “Sunday Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and nine years younger than CBS’ “Sunday Morning.” No surprise, the show has, since launching in mid-September, won over more Hispanic viewers than any of its English-language competitors.

The second hour of the show, which has replaced the reruns and direct-response ads, has seen an increase of 46% in viewers between 25 and 54 since the Sunday edition’s launch, according to data from Nielsen. Advertisers in news programming favor that demographic.

Two investment firms, Searchlight Capital Partners and ForgeLight LLC, acquired a majority stake in Univision in 2020, and Wade Davis, the former Viacom CFO who leads ForgeLight, was named CEO. Executives believe the expansion of “Despierta” to Sundays is emblematic of a new wave of investment in the Spanish-language media property that has also included the launch of PrendeTV, a streaming hub. Univision is slated to acquire the content arm of Grupo Televisa in a deal slated to close this year.

The company’s English-language rivals have worked to expand their morning-news franchises. NBC revamped the Sunday edition of “Today,” anchored by Willie Geist, and built it around a long-form interview with a celebrity. ABC in 2019 expanded “GMA” on Saturdays, adding an hour to the program and getting more stations to carry it. In 2018, ABC launched an early-afternoon extension of the show. The networks have relied more heavily on their morning-news franchises in recent years, well aware that the decades-old shows have a strong connection with viewers, even in an era when more of the audience is leaving traditional TV for on-demand viewing.

So when Luis Silberwasser joined Univision as president of its TV networks in January, he had a question for his teams: “What’s happening on Sunday morning?”

“I asked my question because I know that some of my competitors do it in general market. Sone of those shows are very successful, and we said, well, there is a chance and an opportunity for us to really bring the best of what we do Monday through Friday morning and extend it into Sunday morning,” Silberwasser says in an interview. “It was pretty much white space.”

Univision’s brand of A.M. TV tweaks the English-language networks’ well-worn formula. Yes, there is news reporting, and segments on topics ranging from immigration to exercise, but there is also a mission to give viewers some entertainment. A dog, Cosita, had a regular part on “Despierta” for about a decade — just as the chimpanzee J. Fred Muggs appeared regularly on “Today” in its early years — and Tom Hanks once did the weather. An anchor proposed to Jennifer Lopez when she visited the program in 2015, and Shakira once directed the show from its control room.

But executives didn’t feel they should run the same show on Sundays as they did during the week. Viewers often watch weekend programing as a family, says Doria, and have more time to engage with stories. “You can be in your pajamas under the covers watching the TV,” she says. “I had that in mind.” Some of the segments on the Sunday broadcast run as long as eight minutes and are meant to inspire and inform. Univision has enlisted Raúl González, who is one of the show’s weekday hosts; Maria Antonieta Collins; Jackie Guerrido; and Carolina Rosario to lead the Sunday broadcast.

“Despierta” will give weekend viewers the news, says Silberwasser, “but at the same time, we really go right toward stories about people, and because it is Sunday morning, we can do it in a way that is much more relaxed, maybe more optimistic in tone and in our outlook.” Recent segments have featured an interview with Victoria Alonso, the Marvel Studios executive, as well as one of the principals featured in the Netflix series “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami.”

The Sunday show also gives Univision a chance to go after new advertising, says Donna Speciale, Univision’s president of ad sales, whether that be additional dollars from the show’s current sponsors or new deals with marketers who may not have taken notice of the program in the past. The weekday edition of “Despierta” snared a little more than $80 million in 2020, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, compared with nearly $88.2 million in 2019. “The trust of what’s there in that program is high,” says Speciale.

Already, Procter & Gamble and Mattress Firm have supported the Sunday broadcast by tying themselves to particular segments, and Speciale says she hopes for more. She believes segments on health and wellness could prove attractive to pharmaceutical marketers, not one of Univision’s biggest categories, and hopes a new “studio” aimed at helping advertisers create bespoke content for Univision will start conversations about longer-term support for the show, not just individual promotions.

Meanwhile, producers are ready to try new things and see what resonates with viewers making a Sunday appointment. “There are no formalities, and we are learning,” says Doria.

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