Telemundo’s Luis Silberwasser Explains How ‘Empire,’ ‘Walking Dead’ Turned His Network Around

Pretending Hispanic Americans “don’t know what ‘The Sopranos'” is “is lunacy,” Luis Silberwasser tells TheWrap

OWAV Luis Silberwasser

Telemundo is celebrating its best third quarter ever and top full broadcast season to date, all while president Luis Silberwasser is still just 18 months into the job.

While some of the main changes at Telemundo pre-dated Silberwasser, big improvements under his authority could have rival Univision sweating. “We have a better sense of the community here in the States,” Silberwasser told TheWrap, careful not to mention his chief competition by name.

Until recently, Spanish-language TV had a reputation for being all melodrama, all the time. There were no real seasons, very few three-dimensional characters, and not much for younger generations to get excited about. Telemundo is changing all of that through innovation and original programming.

“We don’t import the product,” Silberwasser said when asked about the difference between his network and the one he dare not say by name. “We produce it for our audience who lives here. The product wasn’t made by others for others.”

In other words, Telemundo is making American TV for Americans — unlike Univision, which still mostly imports Latin American projects to customers in the States.

Univision is still No. 1 by most Nielsen categories, but Telemundo’s new attitude is making a difference. The network’s hit narcotics drama “El Senor De Los Cielos” adopted the antihero aspects of America hits such as “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” — and it broke records in its Monday 10 p.m. time slot.

The broadcaster is also adapting global property “Big Brother,” fresh off the heels of using its NBCUniversal parent company’s hit reality property “The Voice” to accomplish another goal of Silberwasser’s — bringing music to the network. Not only has “La Voz Kids” translated into strong ratings, the network’s follow-up push of bio-musicals have also proved successful.

Finally, with the variety show “Sabado Gigante” out of the picture after its amazing 53-year run, Telemundo is also aggressively targeting Saturday nights. Variety series “Que Noche!” launches this weekend.

Silberwasser spoke to TheWrap about Telemundo’s programming strategy, whether he fears Univision will copy it and the prospect of English-language shows down the road.

So how — and why — did this big programming change happen?
It [didn’t just] happen — we’ve been thinking about it for a long time. One of the key realizations for us is that this Hispanic community is living in this world where it has one foot in the Spanish-speaking world and one other foot in the English-speaking world — where they go and they work and they have colleagues at work — but when they come home it’s all Spanish.

It’s an audience that’s very comfortable living in this duality between the English-language world and the Spanish-language world. So to pretend that they don’t watch “Walking Dead” or they don’t know what “The Sopranos” [is] or they don’t know what “Empire” [is] is lunacy.

In Hispanic television there’s usually a very, very bad guy and a very, very good girl — or a very, very rich guy and a very, very poor girl. It’s very stereotypical. We sort of turned the whole thing upside down.

With NBCUniversal properties — and money — and no real competition for Spanish-language adaptations of English-language series, you must feel like you’re in a candy store. What’s next?
The whole world is the canvas for us, and a source of inspiration, I would say. Whether ideas come from the English-language world, or the ideas come from Latin American in the Spanish-speaking world — or Spain — and even Europe. We’re in the business of trying to create great television for our viewers.

We have a particular sensibility for the Hispanic community … we want to be Hispanic America at its best.

Telemundo is positioned in a much more modern way than the competitor. I think we are more in tune with … this audience.

Do you ever see your network evolving to the point where you’ll have English-language or partial English-language programming?
It’s hard to say what’s going to happen 10 or 15 years from now, but in the next five years, I don’t see that happening for Telemundo.

We cater not only to Spanish dominance, but to people who are very comfortable in both languages — but that can really be conversive and can understand Spanish well. We don’t exclude people who are English-speaking, but I think it [would be] hard [for them]. That’s the content that we do best — we do it best when it’s in Spanish.

With all your recent success, do you see Univision beginning to apply the same changes?
Like everybody, they’re seeing what’s happening and they need to understand what it means for them. Our expectation is that they will also change, and that they also will be a stronger competitor — which they are today.

We’re doing our thing, and they’ll continue to do their thing. I do think that we’ll continue to be innovators.

It’s hard for me to answer what’s on their mind, but I think we are happy with what we’re doing and I think it’s working for us — whether that’s gonna be something that works for them or not.