Retrans Just the Beginning for O’Connor

Digital deals, new cable networks on tap for Univision distribution chief
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Tonia O’Connor tackles some of television’s most pressing issues as president of distribution sales and marketing for Univision. She is also learning Spanish and trying to embrace her inner Latina.

O’Connor joined Univision in 2008, charged with negotiating retransmission consent agreements for the country’s leading Spanish-language broadcaster. She got those deals done by showing distributors how they could tap into the vital Hispanic market by working closely with Univision.

“It doesn’t take a lot of work for distributors to understand that in a marketplace where there is basic-subscriber erosion, the one meaningful growth opportunity for is Hispanics,” O’Connor says.

And when a deal is closed, that’s when the real work begins, she says. O’Connor recently formed a distributor partnership marketing group that embeds itself within a cable operator’s marketing department to help them reach Hispanic customers.

O’Connor has come a long way from her New England roots. Born in Southern California, her father, a Navy man, moved the family to southern Maine when she was 10. Despite her father’s career in the service, the family didn’t move again.

She attended Syracuse University dreaming of someday becoming a TV reporter. Instead, she moved to Atlanta, where Greg Mayes, then her boyfriend and now her husband, found a job. She decided to pursue a career in sales. Her first job was making cold calls selling mobile communications— pagers—to business customers for Bell South. In sales, she could control her own destiny, and “if you were hungry and had the fire in your belly, really the sky’s the limit.”

When Mayes went to law school in Philadelphia, she followed again and found an opportunity in the media business at TVSM, a cable guide publisher. She moved to the electronic side of media, commuting to New York, when TVSM was acquired by TV Guide, which in turn was swallowed up by United Video and then by Gemstar. In addition to normal distribution issues, O’Connor wound up selling intellectual property and technology associated with TV Guide Channel and its electronic program guide.

O’Connor stayed with Gemstar-TV Guide as it went through management and legal issues. “She was the one constant,” says Ray Hopkins, who joined Gemstar as head of distribution during that period and recommended O’Connor succeed him when he left to join YES Network. “She was a diamond in the rough over there,” Hopkins says. “She’s a driven individual who knows where she wants to go.”

Former Gemstar-TV Guide CEO Jeff Shell recalls that O’Connor was ahead of the game dealing with technology. “Everybody has to think of that now in the world of new media and streaming,” Shell says. He thinks O’Connor is among the best at what she does and should be running a business someday, either in cable or new media.

Shell, now president of NBCUniversal International, says the senior staff bonded during tough times at Gemstar and still communicates now, especially at Kentucky Derby time. O’Connor, he says, is “one of the guys.”

When Gemstar was sold and broken up, O’Connor began considering her next move. Fellow Syracuse alum Fred Dressler, former head of programming for Time Warner Cable, was consulting with Univision and told her the company was looking for someone to oversee its distribution team and conduct its first retrans negotiations.

“We kept our eye focused right on building around the partnership with the distributors. That was the recipe for success in the initial deals,” O’Connor says of that first agreement. “And as we are striking new deals, the same is true.”

Univision CEO Randy Falco says O’Connor’s strengths in distribution and digital content management have become increasingly important. “You have to understand the technology, not only from our perspective, but from the distributors’,” says Falco, who calls O’Connor very strategic and a great team leader. “She understands that while we certainly want to have the very best or highest monetization of our content, she also understands that the operators and distributors are looking for ways to grow.”

The next steps on O’Connor’s agenda are getting carriage for three new cable channels Univision plans to launch next year—one for news, one for sports, one for novellas—and to set up an authentication system with operators to deliver Univision content online. She also recently completed a deal putting Univision programming on Hulu Plus.

“I think it’s so rare where the company is a market leader, but yet [also offers] so much opportunity and room for growth. We’ve really just begun,” O’Connor says.

She is currently also taking private Spanish lessons. “It’s important for my own character development that I speak two languages, and it’s been a great experience for me to work in an organization as diverse as Univision where I am getting a lot more exposure on a daily basis to many different cultures,” she says.

Her seventh-grader thinks she’s got some more work to do on her Spanish, but she knows enough to pick up when the office receptionist comments on her out! ts. “It’s going to be my secret weapon,” she says. “I can be in on the joke.”

O’Connor loves her job, even though it means sacri! cing time with her three kids. “It’s pretty simple. Work by day, kids by night and weekends,” she says. In winter, the family goes skiing, taking vacations out west, because her boys are ski racers. “It’s a sport they can do, but the whole family gets to participate,” she says.

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette

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