Univision, Telemundo Battle Over Competing Music Biopics

From left: Luis Miguel, Selena and Jenni Rivera
Getty Images; AP Photo

From left: Luis Miguel, Selena and Jenni Rivera

Why the two leading Latin TV networks are going head-to-head with shows about the same music stars airing at the same time.

Late in 2016, Mark Burnett was asked to produce the official life story of reclusive Mexican superstar Luis Miguel. During 30 hours of interviews, Miguel related a tale so rich in detail that Burnett shopped the project to rival Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, with the latter winning a bidding war to air it.

Not to be deterred, Univision then asked Miguel's longtime video director, Pedro Torres, to do a bio series of its own to compete against Telemundo's production.

Now, Miguel's story is the latest battleground in the decades-old rivalry between Univision and Telemundo, long the No. 1 and No. 2 Spanish-language networks in the United States, respectively, as they fight for viewers. And increasingly, that competition has focused on biographical series about the biggest music stars in the Latin world.

In 2015, Telemundo first realized the opportunity in musical bio projects when it aired Celia, a series based on the life of the late Celia Cruz. Its success led Telemundo to pursue the U.S. rights to Hasta Que Te Conocí, a series based on the life of Juan Gabriel, which debuted the following year to an average of 2.9 million viewers and became the highest-rated weekend scripted series ever on Spanish-language TV, pushing Telemundo above Univision in the ratings for 11 straight weeks, according to Nielsen.

In January, Univision entered the game, premiering Su Nombre Era Dolores, a series about the life of the late Jenni Rivera, while Telemundo was in the midst of producing an official family-authorized Rivera series, set to air later this year. (Competing projects about Selena are also on the way, one on Telemundo and another in development by Endemol Shine.)

"The challenge is, how do I tell you something the other series hasn't?" says Dhana Media CEO Mari Urdaneta, who co-produced Su Nombre Era Dolores for Univision.

The Rivera family was in conversations with Telemundo when Urdaneta went to Rivera's former manager, Pete Salgado, and shopped a competing project to Univision. While Rivera's family unsuccessfully sued to block the series -- and is currently seeking $10 million in damages -- Dolores became a hit: Its premiere episode averaged 2.1 million viewers.

"In a very competitive market, both networks are trying to acquire and develop their own intellectual property and we often encounter the same project," says Telemundo president Luis Silberwasser. "For us, getting the authorized version with access and support has been fundamental."

On the other side, "Univision has been a key platform for these artists," says Univision president of entertainment Lourdes Diaz. "We've had access to them through interviews, award shows, exclusive footage."

The competition boils down to the authorized series' insight versus an unauthorized version's "ability to tell a no-holds-barred story," says James Sammataro, a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. "Reality is paramount," Urdaneta adds. "For these [series’] to work, you have to truly bare yourself." 

So will the notoriously private Miguel bare his soul?

"The one word that sums what I learned about him is ‘vulnerability,’" says Burnett. "We will show that and put the audience in the shoes of Luis Miguel."