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Downtown CNN Latino project gains footing

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Published:   |   Updated: October 3, 2013 at 06:09 AM

By this time next year, much of the treasured-yet-empty Kress department store building downtown Tampa may be transformed into a multimillion-dollar television studio and headquarters for the operations of CNN Latino across the eastern United States.

Engineers are working on design plans for the space that will be designated for high-end TV studios and administration, and the owners of the CNN Latino affiliate station here in Tampa say they have a big advantage: Their partners already own it.

A cooperative project with CNN, the CNN Latino station has a news and information focus, but also is looking to develop hundreds of hours of original programming, said Sari Famiglietti, the marketing director and oftentimes chief negotiator for CNN Latino in talks with pay TV providers such as Verizon and Bright House Networks.

“There are all kinds of Spanish-language stations showing soap operas,” she said, “but where is our ‘Seinfeld,’ our HGTV or History Channel?”

The project comes by way of a unique partnership. On one side is the U.S.-based Isaias family originally from Ecuador, a major player in investments, banking and broadcasting. The family — who relocated to Florida amid questions about their finance and tax payments — recently acquired the rights to the CNN Latino brand in the eastern United States.

On the other side is Tampa-based Marlen Abrahantes, who has long been involved in Spanish-language television. The two groups formed TMA-TIG, which already has established some operations in Tampa, Orlando and Miami, and employs about 25 people in Tampa.

Its first presence in Tampa is a small TV studio on Franklin Street that began operating last year. It recently kicked off a morning news program, “Buenos Dias Latino.”

Though often confused, CNN Latino is not “CNN Espanol”; the two have different charters. CNN Espanol is the CNN-produced international news channel that has a global focus and is distributed to cities around the world. CNN Latino has an American focus and targets Spanish-speaking communities in the United States with residents who may have come from countries such as Cuba, Mexico and South America.

So far, the burgeoning project has gained important momentum. The partnership secured a spot on Verizon’s coveted low-number tier at Channel 28, and the company is in negotiations with Bright House, and other providers, including Dish Network, DirecTV, AT&T and Comcast.

As for the Kress building, a new tenant would bring life to the empty hulk. Though it retains the elaborate tile facade and pieces of Art Deco-style cornices, the huge space is virtually empty, with many of the wide, street-facing windows boarded and standing water in the basement. That’s a far cry from when the Kress building held shops that many in Tampa remember as the centerpiece of a thriving downtown retail scene.

The Kress structure takes up a city block on the southwest corner of East Cass Street and North Florida Avenue. Several parts of it were purchased over the course of several months in 2005 for several million dollars by companies connected to the Isaias family. During the real estate boom, developers had envisioned a tall condo tower, though those plans fell by the wayside, and the structure has only recently been used as temporary space for special events.

The next priority for CNN Latino is to tackle three tasks simultaneously. First, build operations to produce dozens of hours each week of original content, including news, perhaps sports and other programming. Second, establish operations in a slew of other cities, because the company has the development rights for everywhere east of the Mississippi River. And thirdly, secure channel spots in the lineups for all the other pay television providers, including giants such as Comcast, Time Warner and Cox.

Viewers, meanwhile, shouldn’t look for Spanish programs exclusively, Famiglietti said. The goal is to produce a proportion of roughly 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English shows, with one exception. Though Spanish-language soap operas attract a devoted fan base, CNN Latino will steer clear of telenovellas.

“There are plenty of those shows,” Famiglietti said. “We have different plans.”

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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