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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Original version published in Poder magazine, October/November 2013

Fusion: Once a nuclear reaction, then a compact car, now a brand new 24-hour television channel.
 

How the next big TV thing materialized — in Miami.

By Kirk Nielsen

In the vast and crowded supercollider that is the American media universe, what were the odds that Ben Sherwood would coincide with Isaac Lee at just the right moment two and half years ago to set off the long and complex chain reaction now issuing forth as Fusion, the newest national cable network in the U.S.? Perhaps it was inevitable. Sherwood, who is 49 and the New York City-based president of ABC News, first met with Lee, the 42-year-old Miami-based president of Univision News, and Cesar Conde, the then 37-year-old president of Univision Networks, on March 31, 2011. “I did not have the actual idea in my back pocket. It was serendipitous that Cesar and Isaac came by and in the course of them being there the idea just sort of appeared in front of us while we were sitting there together,” Sherwood recalls.

The catalyst of the meeting was actually Robin Sproul, the ABC News Washington bureau chief. In January of that year, Sproul had had breakfast with a friend, Mike Feldman, and they were sharing ideas for covering the 2012 presidential election. Feldman, who had served as a senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s, is the founding partner and managing director of Glover Park Group, a strategic communications firm. “He had done some work about the growing influence of the Hispanic electorate,” Sproul says. “I was intrigued with some of the information he shared with me about Hispanic populations.” So she called Lee to talk about potential partnerships in political coverage.

Lee, a consummate networker, was more than interested and two months later traveled to New York City along with Conde for the March 31 meeting with Sherwood. Over a fancy lunch in a conference room on the 22nd Floor of ABC News Headquarters building on West 66th Street, they brainstormed with Sherwood and several of his colleagues, including Sproul, Disney Media Networks vice president of strategy Lisa Segal, ABC’s international editor Tom Nagorski (now executive president of the Asia Society), and ABC’s head of news gathering Kate O’Brien (now president of Al Jazeera America).

“We knew that we had to get into the English language. They knew that they had to get into the Hispanic world,” says Lee. “We explained to them that day that the right way to go was in English not Spanish. And that was new to them. But it was quite impressive to see how quickly Ben got it.” 

That’s probably because Sherwood had started tracking the country’s changing ethnic demographics back in 1994, when he took leave from his job as a 29-year-old ABC News producer in New York and returned to his native Los Angeles, after the unexpected death of his father. It was a superheated time in Southern Cal politics: anti-immigrant groups had gotten Proposition 187 on the statewide ballot. The measure aimed to bar undocumented residents from receiving state-funded services and was at the white-hot center of the governor’s race between Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Kathleen Brown. Sherwood was the Brown campaign’s issue’s director. 

“I watched the powerful political forces at work and the rapidly changing demographics in California,” he recounts. “I set out in 1994 to write a book called The Un-Whitening of America. The thesis of the book was going to look at the profound political, economic, social, cultural changes that would take place both in California and over the next 30 years in the United States, as the demographic surge would make the United States a majority minority nation.”

But “life intervened,” and he resumed his high-velocity climb through the network ionosphere by joining NBC Nightly News in 1997, and never finished the book (although in 2000 he did manage to publish a comical novel, The Man Who Ate the 747). He returned to ABC in 2004 as executive producer of Good Morning America. He became president of ABC News in December 2010—the same month Conde hired Lee at Univision.

While Sherwood was climbing through the network television ionosphere, Lee had been traversing a circuitous course in a parallel universe of print and online media. In the mid-1990s in Bogotá, he’d been a 25-year-old editor of Cromos, a photo-heavy fashion and celebrity gossip magazine; a 26-year-old editor-in-chief of Semana, Colombia’s leading news weekly, during which time he launched SoHo, Semana Group’s answer to Maxim, and oversaw the company’s entry into the Web. 

In 2000, Lee landed in Miami as editor of Punto-com, a start-up business magazine with online and print versions whose target readership was Latin American Internet entrepreneurs. A year later the venture fizzled along with the dot.com bubble. But Lee raised new private equity funding and reorganized as Zoom Media Group, which by the end of 2002 was publishing monthly editions of PODER in Spanish and English and Loft, a men’s lifestyle magazine, in both languages. Zoom folded in 2005 after Lee’s majority investor at the time, Andrés Mata Osorio, owner of one of a big Caracas daily El Universal, withdrew funding. But Lee bounced back as Page One Media, which soon relaunched PODER, circulating two English versions in the U.S. and several Spanish editions in Latin America. Televisa, the huge Mexico-based TV production colossus and part-owner of Univision, added PODER to its magazine portfolio in 2009. (Televisa handles the advertising; Page One Media still runs the editorial side.)

Lee took his bilingual model with him to Univision, where one of his first moves as news division president was to launch the Univision News Tumblr site, where a small team of mostly young reporters posted video and articles in English. “It was a little side project that no one was paying much attention to,” Lee says. “We put together this team, and we started seeing the impact of what we were doing in English. The growth of our followers, the impact of our stories. We were becoming very relevant with very little. And it was every time more clear how big the opportunity was.”

Conde had worked to overcome skepticism on Univision’s board—which includes 18 private equity owners representing a consortium of six firms that bought the firm in 2007— about making some kind of huge play in English. He declined to identify the biggest skeptics or describe their specific qualms. “Change is always difficult,” he says, diplomatically. “The general sentiment was one of being very careful not to disrupt the traditional business model.” He prevailed after showing them how an English-language programming would be “additive not cannibalistic” for the Spanish side of the Univision family.

The only owner Conde would comment about was billionaire Haim Saban, the 68-year-old head of Los Angeles-based Saban Capital Group. Saban was always “extraordinarily supportive” of taking Univision into English in a big way. “Haim is a very savvy and forward-thinking entrepreneur, and he understood intrinsically from the beginning that it was important for Univision to continue to grow and diversify its business,” Conde offered.

Now Lee and Conde were not only eating lunch with the president of ABC News but having such “incredible chemistry,” to use Sherwood’s phrase, that they were “finishing each other’s sentences.”

Memories can be hazy for those in the daily television news biz, but the brainstorming “went significantly beyond potential partnerships for covering the 2012 elections,” Sproul recalls. “Ben, Cesar, and Isaac challenged each other to think boldly about the potential for joint projects.”

Sherwood sums up the discussion this way: “We sort of shared some ideas about the present and the future of the country,” adding that it was “no surprise” to hear Conde and Lee tell him that Univision News wanted to expand into English-language television programming, rather than Spanish. “In fact, that’s actually what I was hoping,” says the ABC News chief. “That’s what we were hoping.”

That first ABC-Univision encounter produced only one immediate free radical: they agreed to share costs for a bilingual correspondent to cover the Latino vote beat for both networks during the 2012 presidential primary season. (The gig went to ABC News’s Chicago-based reporter, Mark Jaffe).    

But the bigger, bolder ideas soon mushroomed. “While they had come nominally to ask about certain partnerships that they were interested in covering the 2012 presidential election, we very quickly began to dream big dreams together,” Sherwood says. “And we began to talk about joining forces to create a brand new multi-platform service aimed at English-speaking Hispanics.”

In other words, a brand new national news channel. Discussions involving ABC and Univision lawyers and financial operations people on how to structure such a joint venture started in April 2011.

Tele-fission  

Did Latinos really want a whole new English-language channel devoted just to them? Was there really a viable way to split off yet another slice of America’s already super-segmented television audience? If the answer was yes, Lee and Sherwood knew that at some point Bob Iger, the 62-year-old CEO of The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, was sure to want some corroboration.

That process would fall to Anne Sweeney, as president of the Disney/ABC Television Group (and Sherwood’s boss). In corporate television this is known as “testing the hypothesis,” that creating such a channel was a good idea for ABC and Disney, Sherwood explains. “There’s talking to the client base in the advertising community. Is there interest in sort of reaching this community? There’s talking to distributors about their interest in a new multi-platform service aimed at Hispanics.”

Sweeney determined that enough advertisers and distributors would be on board to continue to move forward. Her assessment then went to Kevin Mayer, Disney’s head of corporate strategy, for his take. After his thumbs up, the proposal went to Iger, the Disney CEO, who also approved.

“At each step there were a lot of questions about the overall interests of the Walt Disney company, the strategic interests of ABC News, the ability to distribute this channel,” Sherwood says. “As each of the data points comes back, let’s just say that there is considerable enthusiasm for this idea throughout the Walt Disney Company and throughout the marketplace.”

Putting together the deal would take about year. Engaged in the back-and-forth were Conde, his CFO Andrew Hobson, and Lee on the Univision side, and Mayer, Sweeney, and Sherwood on the other. “And an army of lawyers,” Conde emphasizes. The contract wasn’t finalized until May 2012.

“What it breaks down to is Disney/ABC News is in charge of essentially monetizing the venture, in other words, the ad sales and distribution. And Univision is essentially in charge of the day to day operations and the editorial, or the content,” Conde says. Now what he terms “the real work” had to begin.

Sherwood, Sweeney, and Mayer from Disney/ABC combined with Conde, Lee, and Hobson into a single board to direct the launch phase. Univision’s 35-year-old executive vice president of operations, Beau Ferrari, commenced plans to convert a block-long warehouse about two miles west of the Miami International Airport into what he calls “the biggest news facility in the country.”

But their future broadcasting baby was still nameless; Conde and others had jokingly started calling it “Project Milagro.”
   
Fusion!
Truth be told, Lee and Sherwood both say that the new channel they hope will start making television history on October 28 has ended up being significantly different than what had appeared on their dreamscape during their lunch back in March 2011.

“We spent a lot of time and a lot of money on research,” Lee discloses. “I think we made [sic] more than 200 focus groups.” Among the key consultants were Lubin Lawrence, a New York-based growth strategy consulting firm, and Miami-based Bendixen & Associates.

First major observation: a lot of English-speaking Hispanics—about 10 million of them— are millennials, today’s marketing buzzword for what used to be called “the younger generation.” In 2010, the Pew Research Center defined millennials as anybody between the ages of 18 and 29, which would mean that now the oldest millennials are 32.

Another revelation was that U.S. Latinos under 30 hated the idea of being culturally ghettoized. “Young Hispanics did not want to be treated as an isolated group,” Lee explains. “They wanted to be acknowledged, but as part of a general conversation. And if we wanted to be successful what we needed to do was good content for young Americans.”   

The concept of Sherwood and Lee’s dream channel started becoming less “Latino” and more “millennial.” “The trick—and it sounds easy but it’s not—is that we’re not going to disregard Hispanics,” Lee says. “Twenty percent of those young Americans happen to be Hispanics. By doing good content we would definitely reach them. But not just them.”

The quest for just the right name continued through most of 2012. Lee and his team turned to branding consultants and ad agencies for help. In focus groups, young Latinos tended to reject suggested channel names that were “too Spanish. Like ‘Olé’,” Conde says. “They wanted to feel that this was a community that was inclusive of everyone.” The name Fusion beat out about 700 other possibilities.

Wielding approximately $300 million, Ferrari, who also became Fusion’s interim president,  presided over the completion of the Newsport -- as the channel’s production and broadcast facility is known -- and funded the hiring of about 200 people, most of them since May. “There are only certain moments in your career or your life when you’re able to be a part of something as game-changing as this,” Ferrari says. “And most of the people who are here are here because they feel that way.” On the television side they’ve come from Viacom, Nickelodeon, FX, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ESPN, ABC, and Disney; on the digital, Vogue, Mother Jones, Mashable, Chip Chick, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. 

There was one major departure: Conde left Univision in September and joined NBCUniversal as a vice president focusing on international business development, strategy, and special projects.

Meanwhile, Lee and his team of writer-producers will be fusing the knowledge generated by all those focus groups into actual television shows and their digital offshoots. Millennials think ordinary television newscasts boring. They tend not to watch breaking news. They learn about news events secondhand, for example, from their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

“By the time they were going to watch something, they wanted more than just a report,” Lee says. “They did not want like a very well-produced, tons of makeup, perfect lighting newscast with the news anchor reading something that was very well rehearsed. They preferred something that was more authentic and transparent.”

Another important revelation: millennials prefer news that is funny or satirical. “They relate so powerfully and so well to humor,” Lee says. “That is why programs like Jon Stewart’s ["The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"] and "The Colbert Report" are so successful. They feel that that’s getting news.”    

Fusion will begin radiating from actual television screens in late October with eight hours of original live or live-to-tape programs each weekday. This past May, Lee hired Billy Kimball, who served as executive producer of "The Al Franken Show" on Air America radio and authored eight episodes of The Simpsons earlier in his career, to oversee Fusion’s on-air and digital content.

In his small office with picture windows just off the expansive main newsroom, which feels as cavernous as a sleekly furnished and carpeted jumbo-jet hangar, Kimball tells me that “America with Jorge Ramos,” which airs at 8 p.m. is Fusion’s hardest news show, adding that Ramos’s stature within the media landscape is “about as influential as it’s possible to be.

“That’s part of what the show is about -- fighting for people who need to be fought for or need someone to fight for them,” Kimball adds. “So while Jorge’s not someone in the millennial age cohort, I think he’s somebody whose attitude and whose role in society will definitely make sense to our audience.”

Kimball, who is 54, recruited Los Angeles-based writer and producer David “DJ” Javerbaum, a veteran of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," to manage Fusion’s 9 p.m to 10 p.m. news satire slot. They decided on two half-hour shows. One is "Sports Bar," a talk format presided over by three hosts, including a member of the Harvard Sailing Team comedy troupe, who’s not all that into sports. The other half-hour of the satire block was under wraps, Kimball told me, but intimated that it’s based on a “post-Daily Show” idea that Javerbaum had developed before joining Fusion. 

“It’s not better (than "The Daily Show"). It’s not a twist on it. It’s not the next anything. It’s its own thing that’s different,” Kimball hints. “And that’s the part about it that got us really excited about it. Instead of people saying, ‘Wow, they managed to do something almost as good as 'The Daily Show.’”

Javerbaum's creation is called "No, You Shut Up" and features four puppets as commentators, Fusion eventually announced.

At 10:00 p.m. Fusion segues into seriousness again with “Open Source” a journalistic talk show hosted by Leon Krauze, the anchor of the evening news for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles. “People have focused a fair amount on the satirical material and that’s important but we also have some stuff like prison reform, the drug war, that we really think are to some extent under-reported elsewhere because audiences can grow fatigued from those stories,” Kimball says. “So while we take the satirical route, as well, we also have some pretty serious stuff we want to talk about with our audience on the network.”

The launch slate also has a three-hour morning show featuring Yannis Pappas, a Greek-American comedian from Brooklyn, who’ll offer something that’s “definitely a little more high fiber than traditional morning fare,” Kimball assures. An afternoon show, Fusion Live, will sort of resemble ESPN’s “Sports Center” with Fusion reporters and producers hot from the assignment desk or highlighting and repurposing material from the previous night’s shows, perhaps even noting viewer feedback via social media.

The evening block starts at 6:00 p.m. Eastern with “DNA”, hosted by Derrick “DNA” Ashong, who will “explore a wide variety of socially relevant issues spanning the arts, society, technology, business and politics,” according to an old-fashioned press release. At 7:00 p.m. Alicia Menendez, an ex-“HuffPost Live” host-producer, former Sirius XM Radio host, and ongoing daughter of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, provides a “fresh take on stories at the intersection of sex, money and politics” with her “signature brand of witty and relatable analysis and commentary, leading a thought-provoking conversation with celebrities, newsmakers, journalists, experts and lively panel discussions,” according to the press release.

“This audience has a very good b.s. detector,” Kimball observes, “so I think efforts to pander to them or appeal to them or to try too hard to be hip and young are not going to be very availing. They’re like other people in that they have a lot of choice. And they’ll recognize what’s valuable and worthwhile to them we think pretty quickly.”

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