There were howls of protest in 2001 when NBC purchased Spanish-language television network Telemundo.

The National Latino Media Council petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to reject the merger on the grounds that media consolidation was detrimental to the general public. The NLMC argued that consolidation represented a bottom-line strategy to amass the largest possible revenue at the smallest possible cost, and would likely result in payroll cuts at Telemundo.

Aware of such concerns, Ramon Escobar, vice president of live-news programming for MSNBC, said all the right things to the FCC. NBC was determined to set the standard for excellence in Spanish-language news, Escobar said, adding, “There will be more resources for Telemundo to produce news.”

Five years later, the skeptics are saying “I told you so,” and NBC Universal reps are doing damage control. In October, NBC announced that it was laying off 700 employees, with 100 of them targeted for Telemundo stations. NBC’s plan for slashing expenses at Telemundo was to eliminate major-market news divisions in Texas, Arizona, and the West Coast, creating a Fort Worth-based regional hub that serves all of those stations. San Antonio’s KVDA Telemundo Channel 60 is among the stations affected by the move.

As expected, NBC officials insist that their commitment to Telemundo’s news coverage has not diminished, and that the new approach will make newscasts more efficient and effective. Not everyone is buying it.

“Their local coverage is going to suffer. It has to, it has no choice,” says Rafael Olmeda, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “Their belief is that they can effectively cover a community while providing a product that is more regional in nature than local.

“To some extent they will be correct; however, to a larger extent I believe that they won’t. There is simply no substitute for a local TV-news operation’s ability to understand what its community wants and needs. You can’t do that in California from Texas.”

In a sense, the move is simply the predictable fallout from a marriage of convenience between a struggling network behemoth and a perpetual underachiever in the Spanish-language-media game. According to Nielsen Media Research, NBC consistently finishes in third place in network ratings, behind ABC and CBS. And Telemundo has never offered a serious challenge to Spanish-language titan Univision, with Univision routinely attracting an audience four times the size of Telemundo’s. Mid-November Nielsen surveys found that 3.3-million viewers watched Univision per week, compared to a mere 820,000 for Telemundo.

Telemundo, however, has advocates who contend that it has delivered superior news coverage over the years. Those supporters are among the most alarmed by the job slashing at Telemundo stations.

“There will still be a reporting team in San Antonio,” NAHJ’s Olmeda says. “What there will not be is any flexibility as to what that team can do. A reporting team can do one story a day. On a good day, they can do two. They can’t do more than that. And sometimes in San Antonio, the local news requires more than two stories in a day. Election day alone is going to be overwhelming.

“If something is happening in Washington, D.C. that’s of particular importance to San Antonio, maybe that crew will put together a package that reflects it. But if there’s any other local news that happens that day, San Antonio will not get it.”

Telemundo representatives did not respond to the Current’s interview requests.

NAHJ officers considered challenging the recent license-renewal application of the Telemundo station in San Jose, California, but ultimately decided that the manpower and money required for this effort would be too great for a futile, largely symbolic act.

Olmeda credits NBC executives for willingly engaging in a dialogue about the recent changes, and for attempting to explain their reasoning. A November 1 letter from NBC to NAHJ, co-signed by Jay Ireland, president of NBC Universal Television Stations, and Don Browne, president of Telemundo, made the following arguments: NBC’s plan will cut costs by $750 million by the end of 2008; only five percent of Telemundo’s 2,000 staff positions will be eliminated; the centralized base in Fort Worth will actually enhance some newscasts, namely Las Vegas, which previously aired taped news and will now air live newscasts.    

Nonetheless, NBC’s policy change seemingly contradicts the company’s enthusiastic pronouncements in 2001 about the explosive growth and boundless potential of the Hispanic market in the United States. Olmeda, for one, doubts that the network would even consider restructuring its English-language news in a similar way.

“I dare them,” he says. “It’s unheard of. They claim they’re going to do it, but I’ll believe it when I see it. This is a way of saving money, and companies have to save money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I think they’re doing it to the detriment of our community.”