It may throw some people off that the president of Telemundo is a man named Donald Browne who speaks only a bit of Spanish. But those who know him say few understand the Hispanic marketplace better than Browne.
“Don is more passionate about and committed to the Hispanic community and public service than most Hispanic people I know,” says Telemundo news anchor José Diaz-Balart, who first met Browne while covering Latin America in the mid-1980s. “He got the importance of Spanish-language TV way before anybody else did.”
Before joining NBC Universal-owned Telemundo in 2003, Browne spent years in network news and local TV in Miami. His experiences, he says, prepared him well for his post at Telemundo, which includes the network, studios, local stations, and cable and digital businesses.
“I've covered every conceivable news story in Latin America,” Browne says. “My knowledge of the cultures and histories of the countries is what is most important in this job.”
Browne is revamping Telemundo to reflect the lives of U.S. Hispanics in its shows. Since taking over as network president in 2005, he has transformed Telemundo from an acquirer of programming into a producer, with studios in Miami, Mexico and Colombia. Telemundo now controls its own primetime fare and can funnel content to its digital and cable businesses. It can also generate new revenue by selling its shows overseas as well as in the key Mexican market.
“The move to controlling our own destiny by producing our own content in primetime has been the single most important factor in positioning Telemundo for growth,” says NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker.
And while Telemundo remains No. 2 in ratings behind behemoth Univision, the network's ratings and image are steadily improving. Says Browne: “We've become one of the strongest brands around the world.”
Browne's drive to work in television began as a teen, when he religiously watched the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite. He temporarily tabled his journalistic ambitions to play football at the University of South Carolina, where he was a star halfback.
Following a tour in the Coast Guard during the Vietnam War, in 1967 Browne found himself in the center of the newsroom he had long admired, tracking film reels from across the world—Saigon, Rome, Tel Aviv—and getting them into the hands of CBS News producers.
Browne worked his way to CBS's Atlanta bureau in 1974. “Everything was happening in the South,” he recalls, including the civil rights movement. The Atlanta bureau also directed coverage of Latin America. In Atlanta, he met his wife, Maria Junquera, a Cuban exile.
In 1979, when NBC offered him a job in its Miami bureau, Browne jumped. Once again, he directed coverage of major news events in the South, including the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and traveled extensively throughout Latin America.
From the earliest days of his career, Browne has tried to mentor young journalists and colleagues. Telemundo's Diaz-Balart was one of dozens of reporters who have benefited from his guidance. Through his career, Diaz-Balart says, Browne has always called with suggestions on style and story selection. But Browne is also a willing student. “As a leader, Don has never been a one-way mentor,” Diaz-Balart says. “He is always picking your brain.”
In 1989 NBC News lured Browne to New York, where he rose to be its executive VP of news. He brought with him a strong desire to mentor young reporters and to diversify NBC's talent pool. Today show star Ann Curry says Browne “kept an eye out for talent that was outside the box, not just Caucasian and male.” In recruiting her to NBC, “He was a farsighted news manager who understood things had to change and wanted the best talent to come to NBC News.”
Browne helped reorganize and revitalize the Today show, adding talent like Curry, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. After former NBC News President Michael Gartner exited following a scandal at Dateline, Browne “stabilized the [news] division at very difficult time,” Zucker recalls.
But Browne desperately wanted to get back to Miami—where his wife and sons had remained—and in 1993 he jumped at a chance to run WTVJ, the first station NBC purchased under Chairman Bob Wright. (NBC recently sold WTVJ.)
It was not an easy assignment. WTVJ's news needed to be revitalized and, after his first year, WTVJ had to switch to a weaker broadcast signal as part of a station swap deal between NBC and CBS. “The newspapers wrote it as a death sentence,” he says. “But we rebuilt and came back to be one of the strongest stations.”
Browne saw in Miami the potential of the burgeoning Hispanic community. He recalls discussing with Wright his desire to buy a Spanish-language station and build a duopoly in Miami. That vision came to life as part of NBC's 2001 acquisition of Telemundo. In 2003, Browne stepped in as COO to ease the transition into NBC's culture.
Despite having no experience in Spanish-language TV, Browne says he understood the audience and what they wanted from the network: programming that reflected their lives in the U.S.
“The Hispanic audience is an extraordinarily diverse group with unique cultures,” Browne says. “What they have in common is their language and that they've come to this country.”
In just three years, the network has gone from no originals to more than 1,000 hours. It is also investing in its news, cable and digital businesses. But Browne says there's plenty more to be done.
“We know we are up against Goliath [in Univision],” he says, “but we are relevant because we are reflecting our audience's diversity.”—Allison Romano
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