MIAMI — Twenty miles west of Miami’s glittering oceanfront, closer to the Everglades than to the Fontainebleau hotel, a hangar-size office building rises from the flatlands like a spaceship.
The employees here enjoy tech-industry perks like unlimited coffee, gourmet lunch options and 24-hour dry-cleaning service. For those who drive to the office, a smartphone app offers the ultimate motorists’ convenience: Touch a button and an attendant gasses up your car while you’re at work.
The space, which opened last year, could easily be home to a tech startup. But it houses a more traditional business: Telemundo, the Spanish-language television network owned by Comcast. And the $250 million campus reflects the brighter prospects for a channel that is taking steps to position itself at the center of the political conversation.
Long in the shadow of its bigger, older rival, Univision, Telemundo and its news division scored a coup last month by landing the first interview granted by President Donald Trump to a Spanish-language outlet during his White House tenure. José Díaz-Balart, Telemundo’s chief anchor, challenged Trump when he asserted that many Latino voters supported deportations.
Days later, the channel and its corporate cousins, NBC News and MSNBC, hosted the first debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race, in Miami. Voice actors performed a live Spanish translation of the proceedings, during which Díaz-Balart, one of five moderators, cued Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, to answer questions partly in Spanish.
It amounted to a statement of intent by Telemundo about its role in a campaign season when Trump’s restrictive immigration policy, which has unnerved many American Latinos, is expected to be a focus.
“These are investments we are making because we believe the issues most important to our community are the issues being debated right now,” Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, said in an interview last week over Cuban espressos.
After years as the also-ran to Univision, Telemundo has broken out: In the key audience group of adults under 50, the network expects to finish ahead of its rival in weekday prime time for the third season in a row. (Univision still has the edge in total viewers.) It’s a turnaround that had been brewing since NBCUniversal acquired the network in 2011.
The channel placed a big bet on live soccer, spending $600 million to poach Univision’s World Cup broadcast rights. And Conde, who joined Telemundo in 2013 after leading Univision, ordered up edgier programming, including telenovelas filmed on its Miami soundstages.
Investing in journalism, executives say, is a logical next step. In May, Telemundo hired one of Univision’s top news executives, Patsy Loris, to oversee its coverage of the 2020 presidential race. Ratings for its flagship newscast, “Noticias Telemundo,” hosted by Díaz-Balart, are up more than 30% from 2018. Conde said that the news division was creating its first investigative unit and that an English-language streaming newscast aimed at Latino viewers would soon debut online.
Still, the competition is steep. Univision has led the way in aggressive reporting for the American Latino audience. The network’s chief anchor, Jorge Ramos, was among the first journalists to be ejected from a Trump campaign event, after he asked tough questions of Trump during an Iowa news conference. The nightly “Noticiero Univision” newscast continues to outrank Telemundo’s offering.
That made Telemundo’s presidential scoop last month all the more notable. Díaz-Balart — who conducted the interview with two injured arms, courtesy of a bicycling accident — said he had pursued the meeting since Election Day 2016.
“The president needs to speak to the largest minority in the United States,” Díaz-Balart said in Miami last week. “I needed to know, and I needed my community to hear, specific answers on specific issues that are of deep concern to our community.”
Born in Florida to Cuban exiles, Díaz-Balart grew up immersed in the region’s geopolitical history: His aunt was once married to Fidel Castro, and his father was a politician and an activist. His history with Telemundo dates to the network’s first newscast in the 1980s, though English-speaking viewers may have encountered him during hosting stints on CBS and MSNBC.
His family remains prominent in South Florida politics: Two of his brothers have served as Republicans in Congress. (One, Mario Díaz-Balart, is still in office.) Jose Díaz-Balart said he had had no qualms about challenging Trump during their conversation.
“I didn’t feel as though we were attacking him. We were just being clear on what the truth is and how our community feels,” he said. “A lot of what he says, and how he says it, and what he does, is causing fear in the Latino community. He may not want to hear that, but it’s a fact.”
Univision executives said they, too, planned to aggressively cover the 2020 race — and suggested that their past confrontational coverage might have been a reason that Trump opted to sit down with a rival network.
“The more that we do our jobs in terms of questioning authority and holding people in authority accountable, sometimes the more difficult it is for us to have access,” Lourdes Torres, Univision’s head of political coverage and special projects, said in an interview. “It makes it more difficult to get an interview with the president, makes it more difficult to get access to some of those rallies. But we don’t stop trying to get those answers.”
As for Telemundo’s encroachment onto political turf, Torres took a measured view. “Latino viewers are the ones who can take full advantage of us having good competition,” she said. “If there are other people out there emulating and trying to do what we’ve been doing for years, that’s something that makes us proud.”
Univision will enter the campaign spotlight in September, when it and ABC News host the third Democratic primary debate. Fewer candidates than the field in Miami last month are expected to qualify, thanks to stricter requirements set by the Democratic National Committee.
“It’s a better opportunity to have a more meaningful conversation with the candidates,” Torres said.
Until then, Díaz-Balart, who interviewed Barack Obama several times during his presidency, said he planned to pursue a follow-up with Trump, who he said needed to do more to directly address Latinos. An interview every two years, he said, “is not acceptable.”