“When Carlos became president of Venevisión International in 1991, the first thing he told me [as the company’s sales executive] is still ingrained in my brain: ‘Remember, you’re in show business! No show, no business!’” recalled veteran international TV distributor, Cesar Diaz of 7A Media from his Miami, Florida home base.
Indeed, the Cuba-born, 82-year-old Carlos Barba has had the “show” ingrained in his own brain from an early age. Not yet tired of the entertainment business after 61 years, he now runs UnoDosTres.com, an Internet television network company not from Miami, in West Palm Beach, Florida. Last year, he launched the subscription VoD service Véonet, for Spanish-speaking audiences in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and in 2007 he founded Spanish-language TV network CaribeVision.
Throughout his career, Barba has worked as a broadcaster (for eight TV stations), producer, content distributor, TV ad sales rep (NetSpan) and Internet TV pioneer (almost always with the title of president), in Havana, Cuba; Caracas, Venezuela; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Miami, Florida, Englewood and Teaneck, New Jersey and in New York City before settling back to Miami and, now, West Palm Beach. Plus, he has been associated with such entertainment leaders as Goar Mestre, Norman Lear, Jerry Perenchio, Gustavo Cisneros, Peter Bottome, Emilio Azcárraga Milmo and famous corporate raider Saul P. Steinberg.
And if all that weren’t enough, Barba has had a leading role in every development of Hispanic television in the U.S. Even back in Cuba in 1955, when in a chartered Cubana Airlines DC-3 airplane, Barba and some technicians flew in a circular pattern between Key West, Florida, and Havana to pick up and rebroadcast America’s World Series’ baseball games to an avid Cuban TV audience. His friend and fellow Cuban veteran TV executive Alexander Fiore recalled, “The airplane took off a half hour before the game and remained in the air for three hours [the first satellite TV link took place in 1962 between the U.S. and Europe].”
And everything was always done with flair. Recalled Marcel Vinay Sr., who first met him later on in 1993 when Barba was running Channel 41/Univision and Vinay represented Mexico’s Televisa, a Univision partner: “Barba was successful perhaps because he loved to see his name everywhere.”
“In this business you have to make things appear bigger than they actually are!,” continued Diaz, relaying what Barba told him during their first meeting. And he’s not too bashful to trumpet his achievements, ready to e-mail a PowerPoint presentation titled “The Midas Touch of Carlos Barba” to whomever requests to know how he increased the value of the TV properties he had managed (well before now-President Donald Trump’s 2011 book titled, “The Midas Touch.”)
To Barba, succeeding in show business meant utilizing whatever hype was available, but in his case the reality reflected the hype and vice-versa. But he also has had other qualities, one of which was expressed in a speech at Princeton University Graduate School, October 11, 2008. “You must think and feel about your future not as a distant time from today but as happening right now,” he said, although he credits his daughter Maria, who wrote that speech for him. However, during an interview with this journalist, Barba said that at night he always dreams about the future and never worries about the present. He also did not recall any real challenges throughout his career: “I was always prepared,” he said.
Barba’s skill as a “showman” with a flare for business surfaced when, in 1953, as a part-time waiter in a Miami restaurant, he convinced the owner to hire a piano player and also promoted himself as a joke-telling master of ceremonies to an Anglo audience, alternately changing jackets and waiting on tables. With this dubious experience under his belt, he returned to Cuba and managed to persuade his family (and friends) that he was in “show business.”
However, his relatives continued to see him as the black sheep. He was expected to follow the tradition of a family that claimed 18 doctors and to ultimately take over his father’s pharmaceutical manufacturing business. But he left Cuba’s Villanova University to become a second baseman for the Lakeland, Florida Pilots, a farm baseball team for the Washington Senators. After two years, a promising career was cut short by a shoulder injury.
Nevertheless, once back in Cuba at age 21 he was able to sell his “show-business” skills to Cuban broadcasting pioneer Goar Mestre Espinosa, who hired him as on-air talent. Mestre was the owner of CMQ-TV, then one of four of Havana’s TV stations. Commercial television was introduced in Cuba in 1950 and three years later, when Barba returned to Havana, his family was one of the country’s few owners of a TV set.
“That beautiful part of my life came to an end in 1959 with the arrival of the Castro regime,” recalled Barba in a 1985 interview with VideoAge, conducted by Edmond M. Rosenthal, then the magazine’s editor. For the Hall of Fame feature, this journalist has taken parts of that interview, which recounted his early life and met with him last January at a West Palm Beach restaurant near his apartment, from where, he proudly said, “we can see U.S. president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion.”
In 1961, Barba caught a boat to Caracas, Venezuela, putting all his money into an elegant wardrobe. But after disembarking, he found someone had switched luggage contents with him and all he had was two ill-fitting Spanish suits. “From that day on,” said Barba, “I have never taken another ship.”
In 1961, Venezuela was a favorite destination for many Cuban refugees before heading to the U.S., including the late actor Manolo Coego, who was called the “Marlon Brando of Cuba.”
In Caracas, Barba worked for three different television stations. During that time, he also turned to comedy writing while living in a Bohemian-style boarding house with a funeral parlor downstairs.
His third station job in Caracas, for CVTV, then owned by CBS, Time Inc. and Venezuelan Peter Bottome’s RCTV, brought him through the positions of production manager, station manager and general manager.
Barba managed to move the station’s ratings from number three in a three-station market to number one.
Similar successes came in Puerto Rico — putting WRIC-TV, then owned by United Artists, on the air and, in 1968 he took WAPA-TV, then owned by Columbia Pictures, from number three to number one in three months (originally, WRIC-TV and WAPA-TV were owned by the same company).
Programming changes had a lot to do with his successes, but station promotion also played a heavy role. One of Barba’s key promotional considerations had been to use airtime properly.
In 1970, Columbia Pictures brought Barba to the U.S. mainland positioning him at its WNJU-TV, Channel 47 in Linden, New Jersey. At that time, he said, “It had no promotion, a weak sales structure and the programming was a mix like a fruit cocktail — a little bit of everything, but nothing to create a habit.”
Starting as a consultant, he moved into the general sales manager role, and in 1974 became president. In his first month on the job, Barba brought in $1.6 million in ad revenue ($10 million in today’s dollars), compared to the station’s $1.2 million over the entire previous year.
In 1984, the new owners of WNJU-TV (the station was acquired by Jerry Perenchio and Norman Lear in 1979) and KSTS in San Jose, California (owned by National Group Television), formed NetSpan, which sold to U.S. advertisers the Hispanic market on a national network level.
By 1986, in addition to managing WNJU-TV, Barba became executive vice president of Embassy Performing Arts, a Spanish-language production and distribution subsidiary of Norman Lear’s and Perenchio’s Embassy Pictures; plus he ran NetSpan.
At the same time, Barba was working on some pilots for U.S. television in his spare time, hoping to show his boss, Norman Lear, another facet of his abilities. The title of one of his scripts was The American Dream.
Meanwhile, two corporate telenovelas were taking place in the Hispanic TV world with Barba always in the middle of the unfolding drama. In 1986, Saul Steinberg and Harry Silverman acquired John Blair & Co., which in Puerto Rico owned WKAQ-TV, at that time branded as “Telemundo Canal 2.” Ironically, “Telemundo” was the brand name of Cuba’s CMBA-TV, Canal 2, established in 1953 and later affiliated with the CBS TV network.
Steinberg and Silverman also purchased WNJU-TV in 1986 and the following year the owner decided to rebrand WNJU’s NetSpan — which then was in effect a TV network — as Telemundo. When Steinberg and Silverman bought WNJU-TV from Perenchio and Lear for $75 million, Barba’s five percent stake in the station netted him $3.75 million.
In 1989, Barba became Telemundo’s senior vice president of Programming and Promotions and a board member of the Telemundo Group. He remained with Telemundo until 1991, when he joined Gustavo Cisneros’ Venevisión International as president of the content distribution company.
Let’s move now to a parallel development with competing Hispanic TV network, Univision, which was created in 1987, the year after the Spanish International Network (SIN) was sold to a group headed by Hallmark Cards.
SIN was formed in 1963 as a sales representative for a group of U.S. TV stations that included KWEX and KMEX. It was the first TV network in the U.S. to broadcast in a language other than English.
SIN’s founders — Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta of Telesistema Mexicano (that later became Televisa), Rene Anselmo and Emilio Nicolas, Sr. — had originally acquired San Antonio’s KWEX in 1961 and Los Angeles’ KMEX in 1962 (in 1968 the partnership also acquired WXTV, Channel 41 in Paterson, New Jersey, which was later managed by Barba).
But, due to U.S. foreign TV ownership restrictions, in 1986 Televisa’s interest in SIN’s TV stations had to be acquired by American entities, such as the Hallmark group, which in 1987 also purchased the SIN Network and renamed it Univision. Televisa (which since 1972 had been under Azcárraga Vidaurreta’s son, Emilio Azcárraga Milmo) was contracted to provide programming.
In 1992, Perenchio, Televisa’s Azcárraga Milmo and Venevision’s Cisneros purchased the Univision network from the Hallmark group. In 1993, Perenchio called Barba to serve as general manager of Univision’s New Jersey’s WXTV Channel 41 station. When former Chilean actor Joaquín Blaya resigned as Univision’s president, Perenchio appointed Barba as president and COO (Blaya was then hired by Telemundo to serve as its president). Barba’s mandate was to turn around the operations of the station group, including the network’s flagship station KMEX (in Los Angeles), which generated a large portion of the company’s revenue. Under Barba, KMEX became the first Spanish-language television station ever to outperform English-language network stations.
In 1996 Barba went back to Puerto Rico to, once again, manage WAPA-TV (which at that time was owned by Pegasus Broadcasting) for just one year, before returning to Miami to run ad sales rep Petry Latino. When New York-based Marlin Entertainment and Miami-based NetSpan acquired Petry Latino from Petry Television, Barba became a co-chairman of the new entity named NetSpan Latino.
Just as he’s not bashful about his “Midas Touch,” Barba is equally enthusiastic about his daughters, Maria and Carolina, working with him.
After graduating from American University in Washington D.C. in 1997, Maria went to work for her father, who was then at Univision. She followed Barba in 1991 when he became president of Gustavo Cisneros’ Venevisión International, in Miami, and was head of Marketing and Public Relations. In addition, when, in 1999 Barba went solo and founded UnoDosTres, one of the first Internet TV companies, Maria joined her father as promotion manager.
When Barba founded Spanish-language TV network CaribeVision in 2007, he gave Caroline a job hosting a half-hour entertainment show.
In 1992, the Cuban TV Organization exhibiting at MIP-TV (a market he’s said attended from the beginning up until recently) invited him to Havana to negotiate a package of Cuban baseball games to be sold in the U.S. That was the first time he’d returned to Cuba.
(By Dom Serafini)
Audio Version (a DV Works service)