BY CHRISTINA HOAG
The ratings race in Spanish-language television is usually all about the No. 1 catbird seat, occupied by Univisión and fiercely contested by rival Telemundo.
But there's another battle brewing -- for the No. 2 spot.
TeleFutura, the two-year-old network owned by Los Angeles-based Univisión Communications, is rapidly making strides in ratings and audience share against Telemundo.
With a lineup of talk and variety shows, it's grown to be the second most popular network en español in the early morning and daytime slots among adults 18-49, according to ratings for the first half of 2004.
''We wanted to be very competitive from day one,'' said Alina Falcón, executive vice president and operating manager of TeleFutura Network, which is seen in South Florida on WAMI-TV 69.
"We've been very aggressive in our programming, and we seem to be very much in tune with what viewers want.''
Telemundo, owned by NBC Universal, isn't fazed by TeleFutura's daytime gains.
The Hialeah-based network's strategy pivots on boosting its night-time audience, said James McNamara, president and chief executive of Telemundo.
''Every time period is important, but the money is in prime-time,'' he said. ``I will be the first to admit that we've spent a lot of time on prime-time. Looking forward to the coming season, we do have several new shows for daytime.''
McNamara quickly rattled off the latest prime-time stats to prove that his strategy, which involves creating original programming for U.S. Hispanics rather than recycling Latin American shows, is working.
For July 7-11 p.m., Telemundo was up eight audience share points, to 24, from a year ago; TeleFutura was up three points, to 18, and Univisión was down 11 points, to 58.
Univisión counters that TeleFutura recently outscored Telemundo in prime-time with broadcasts of the Copa América soccer tournament. And in the last two years, TeleFutura has gained 216,000 adult prime-time viewers, as compared to Telemundo's 119,000 gain.
''We're very encouraged,'' Falcón said. ``We have very high hopes.''
Still, TeleFutura's prime-time offering, which includes a 9 p.m. movie, does not worry Telemundo, McNamara said.
''They have a different strategy. The serialized drama audience is different than the movie audience,'' he said, adding that movies are a hard vehicle to build an audience, as different film genres attract different people.
''You have to renew the audience every day,'' he said. ``Our target is Univisión. We don't even look at TeleFutura.''
Films will continue to play a big role in TeleFutura's prime-time, Falcón said. The network has contracts with all major studios, including Universal, which is part of Telemundo's parent.
Universal ''has indicated to us that they'll continue to do business with us,'' Falcón said.
Univisión launched TeleFutura in January 2002 with the goal of relegating Telemundo to the No. 3 spot through a ''counter-programming'' strategy.
Univisión's plan is to cater to all tastes of the Hispanic audience by providing viewers with program choices in the same time slot. When Univisión airs its blockbuster soap opera at 9 p.m., for instance, TeleFutura puts on a movie.
''It's a great strategy,'' said Marla Backer, an analyst with Research Associates of New York. ``You expand your ability to get as wide an audience as possible.''
Looking ahead, TeleFutura is likely to capture more viewers as the network increases its distribution.
It's currently available to 79 percent of Hispanic households, largely thanks to its parent company's $1.4 billion station acquisition spree several years ago.
Falcón said Univisión fully intends to increase distribution channels through more purchases, plus cable and satellite deals -- ``anything that we can do.''
WORKING ON SIGNAL
Telemundo is also working on getting its signal to more televisions.
Today it is scheduled to launch in the Fort Myers-Naples market on WWDT-TV 43 and Comcast's local channel 15.
Being sandwiched between two aggressive players on the same team is
an interesting position for Telemundo. ''There's no question they're a
formidable force in the industry,'' McNamara said.