Central American Television Touched By An Angel

By Dom Serafini

For someone who shuns the limelight, doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t want his picture taken and protects his privacy with zeal, Remigio Angel Gonzalez y Gonzalez, is surprisingly, an open book. The Mexican-born, Miami, Florida resident is president and owner of Albavision, a Miami-based group that controls 26 TV stations in 10 Latin American countries, 21 of which it owns while the rest are affiliated for programming. Albavision also controls 82 radio stations (25 of which are owned and operated) and 40 movie theaters (Cine Alba) in Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Remigio Angel Gonzalez
Remigio Angel Gonzalez

To the international TV distribution industry, Albavision is merely seen as an entity worth an estimated $14 million per year for program acquisitions, but to the Central American TV sector, as well as in countries such as Argentina (Channel 9), Chile (La Red), Paraguay (SNT), Peru (ATV) and Ecuador (RTS), Gonzalez is a pivotal figure.

Even though R. Angel Gonzalez (as he’s less officially known, though in general he’s just called Angel Gonzalez) is rarely in the trade press, a simple Google search in any of the Latin American countries in which he operates is sufficient to get a wealth of information from the various local media, which call him either El fantasma or The Ghost (from America Economia), or simply “The Mexican,” because of his nationality.
Gonzalez was one of the subjects in a University of Texas Press book titled Latin Politics, Global Media. In the parts of the TV industry that deal with the Americas, he’s a well-known figure with many anecdotes to his name. The neglect from the international TV trade press is mainly due to the fact that Central America tends to be ignored by the media in general, but no mas.

For all his popularity and notoriety, Gonzalez remains a complex figure –– just like the region in which he spreads his wings.

Officially, Central America comprises seven countries, but one, Belize, is an English-speaking nation. Usually, for television program sales, the Caribbean is associated with Central America, but of its 20 countries, only three are Spanish-speaking: The Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

However, Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. network feed and, on the Spanish-language side, is attached to the nine major Latin American TV territories. On the other hand, Cuba has not yet returned to be part of the international TV community. Therefore, for the purpose of this article, the Spanish-speaking region is comprised of: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic. This is an area with 51.4 million people and 11 large cities. Of these, Guatemala has the largest population (14 million), Honduras the greatest extension (109 sq. km) and the Dominican Republic the biggest economy (GDP of U.S. $78 billion). This seven-country region’s total GDP is about $400 billion, with a per capita GDP of $7,700 and with more than 5.6 million TVHH of which 870,000 are cable subscribers.

At one point, in 1821, with the exclusion of the Dominican Republic and what is now Panama, the region was even organized as a country, albeit briefly. It was known as the Federal Republic of Central America. So as not to make a diplomatic faux pas, it’s necessary to point out that the aforementioned countries (excluding the Dominican Republic) are locally referred to as Central America and Panama.

The program license fee in the region for a 60-minute series ranges from an average of $300 in Nicaragua to $700 in Panama (see chart on the next page).

Prices are not always reflective of TV ad market size or TVHH. For example, Panama has the lowest population among the seven countries, and yet it’s the largest TV market in terms of advertising revenues and program acquisition prices (see chart on the next page). Costa Rica, with a smaller TV market, a much smaller population and a lesser GDP than Guatemala, pays an average of 32 percent more for programming.

Going back to the caudillo of Central American TV, technology could be warming Gonzalez up to some “controlled” press coverage. For example, much emphasis was given to the fact that in May 2008, when he created Albavision (in honor of his wife Alba Elvira Lorenzana from Guatemala), he agreed to a website (www.albavision.tv) with links to his key TV stations.

The following month he agreed to be quoted in the press release from Harris (the digital TV transmitter manufacturer), stating: “We consider this a natural step in the evolution of free and open television. Aside from offering excellent content, our responsibility with advertisers and audiences is also to guarantee the best quality and signal coverage, regardless of the receiving equipment. That is our focus in high-definition digital television, and very soon, with signals in mobile equipment as well. The new ATSC mobility capability allows us to meet both objectives in an efficient and cost-effective way.”

Previously, he gave a telephone interview to Will Weissert of the Associated Press that was published on June 9, 2002. In that report, it was revealed that Gonzalez’s net worth was U.S.$350 million. Today, his wealth has been estimated at U.S.$2 billion by various unsubstantiated news accounts (Forbes doesn’t have him on its list of world billionaires). However, considering his 21 TV stations and other multi-million dollar interests, that worth is feasible.

The greatest shock among people who know him came on October 23, 2008, when he organized a cocktail reception in Washington, D.C. to announce the launch of Albavision’s pay-TV channel on his three-year old satellite TV service Telecentro, on the DirecTV TV Más platform. That last service was launched in partnership with Guillermo Cañedo White, former CFO of Grupo Televisa.

Telecentro is a TV service programmed with fare from Gonzalez’s Central American TV stations and directed at the estimated six million Central Americans who live in the United States.

Other Albavision expansion strategies (in addition to mobile TV) that will bring Gonzalez unavoidable visibility are his plan to co-produce 10 telenovelas in a five-year period with Peru’s Chroma Producciones, and his intent to develop a Central American all-news TV channel.

Gonzalez, one of 13 children, was born in 1944 to a middle-class family in Sabinas Hidalgo, a small town near the industrial Mexican city of Monterrey. He started his television career in 1971 selling telenovelas in Central America, which were produced in Mexico City by Genaro Delgado Parker when his station in Peru (Panamericana de Television) was nationalized. In Mexico, Parker’s telenovelas were broadcast on Channel 8.

When Channel 8 merged with Telesistema to form Televisa in 1973, Parker left Mexico and Gonzalez moved to Guatemala. There he continued his barter business, basically selling advertising time for Channel 7 –– a station that he now owns –– within the telenovelas library that Parker had left him to distribute. In Guatemala, Gonzalez met his first wife, the sister of Luis Rabbé, a future Guatemalan government minister (she later died in a car accident). Rabbé eventually went on to marry one of Gonzalez’s sisters. A few years later, Gonzalez started Prolasa, a Guatemala-based company used to buy programs from U.S. companies and re-sell then to Central American TV stations. He also used American content to program stations in exchange for their air time. By 1974 he had developed a good relationship with U.S. studios including MCA (now NBC Universal).

In 1976, he was called back to Mexico by his friend Margarita Lopez Portillo, owner of RTC and sister of the country’s then president José Lopez Portillo. Margarita offered Gonzalez a job at Imevision (now TV Azteca), in effect making him a content provider for Channel 7 and Channel 13, which at that time were Mexican government-owned stations, and a few independent stations, of which there were many in Mexico. His biggest coup came in 1978, when he purchased Franco Zeffirelli’s miniseries Jesus of Nazareth from ITC’s Armando Nuñez Sr., which he then sold to Channel 13.

In 1980, he went back to Guatemala and married Alba. The following year, he acquired his first two TV stations in Guatemala: Channel 3 for U.S.$7 million and Channel 7 for U.S.$3 million (he now controls four stations in the country, having added Channel 11 and 13). After Guatemala, he began investing in broadcasting operations in Nicaragua. He now has his hands in three of Nicaragua’s nine TV stations: He owns Channel 10, has majority ownership of Channel 4 and has Channel 12 as a program affiliate station. Subsequently, Gonzalez made his moves in Costa Rica where he now owns three TV stations (one, Channel 4, was acquired from TV Azteca). In the Dominican Republic, he has program affiliation with Channels 2 and 11. Naturally, he has not neglected his native country, and in the South of Mexico, he owns five TV stations.

In 1986, he also became a Latin American wholesaler for New World under Jim McNamara. The abundance of its library material allowed Gonzalez to continue selling programs to the under-performing stations in Central America that could not afford to buy better shows. For some stations, in exchange for the programs, he received a promissory note or stock in the station and eventually accumulated enough shares in a few to take them over.

Around that same period, he decided to tackle the problem of pirated TV signals in Central America. At the time, some TV stations and virtually all the cable or MATV operators in the region were banking on the notion that they were off the international TV industry’s radar, and started to pick up and re-transmit U.S. networks’ programs locally –– down-linking satellite feeds without paying the license fees. Gonzalez, who was selling programs from many U.S. companies, pressured Central American TV stations to abide by international laws and be part of the world television industry as accepted members. At the same time, he was lobbying the U.S. TV networks (which in that era had their own program distribution divisions) to scramble their satellite signals in order to avoid piracy in Central America.

In 1987, Gonzalez moved to Miami and became a resident. His modus operandi has adapted to the new technology, but not changed entirely. His consistent strength is his ability to pay content owners on time in exchange for a reduction of license fees (that at times could reach up to 25 percent of the rate card). This in addition to the fact that he often buys for multiple territories, thus extracting additional savings by taking advantage of the economy of scale.

Based in his offices in Miami and with the help of a small staff, Gonzalez oversees programming for TV stations in 10 countries spanning the whole of Latin America and including territories such as Argentina, Chile and Mexico.

His two daughters are active in Albavision, with Marcela Gonzalez taking a more managerial role. Recently, he has curtailed his TV trade show presence and started to enjoy the simple things in life, like dining in his restaurants, Linda B Steakhouse in Key Biscayne, Miami and Key West, Florida and enjoying his houses in Miami, New Orleans, Mexico City and Guatemala City. One thing he will not give up is his entourage of five trusted secretaries and his quest to learn the English language.