A Los Angeles broadcasting pioneer is set to reach its 60th on-air anniversary this week, a milestone sparked by technological innovation in an earlier era of television. And it comes as Univision’s KMEX-TV and other local TV stations are under increasing pressure to reinvent themselves for a new era that brings new expectations from its core audience.
KMEX-TV, now known as Univision Los Angeles and owned by TelevisaUnivision, signed on the air as channel 34 at 3 p.m. PT on Saturday, Sept. 29, 1962, becoming the first Spanish-language TV station to serve the region. Over six decades and counting, KMEX-TV has become a beloved lifeline and trusted source of news, sports, entertainment and public-service information for Spanish-speaking viewers.
Univision Los Angeles will commemorate its diamond anniversary today with a festival in downtown L.A.’s Olvera Street district. The station will also air four 30-minute documentaries on its history.
“KMEX has a special connection to Hispanics in Los Angeles because KMEX has always been there for them,” Alejandra Santamaria, interim general manager of Univision Local Media. “We are the station that provides in-language and in-culture entertainment, information and news that reflects the community interests like no other.”
KMEX is part of a much bigger media company these day: TelevisaUnivision, a new entity created by a long-awaited merger that was completed in January.
But KMEX’s core focus hasn’t changed. The station’s mission is to serve Los Angeles-area viewers with local news and information, which has to be available on platforms embraced by its array of viewers. KMEX’s audience is increasingly migrating to mobile and social platforms for their daily diet of headlines, scores, weather forecasts and such.
“KMEX will continue to reach the community where they are regardless of platform. We are available on our UNow App for live TV streaming, we have our own YouTube Channel and often host live events across all social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,” Santamaria said. “We recently live streamed the Los Angeles Mayoral and Sheriff’s (election) debates on our social media and digital platforms only. We cover breaking news and weather regularly on our digital and social media platforms. Hispanics over-index on cellular phones and we know that is their go-to for connecting with their families and we need to be there for them as they need information and seek out entertainment.”
The birth of KMEX was made possible by the development in the U.S. of UHF channel broadcasting in the mid-1950s. The first wave of commercial TV in that came in the post-WWII late 1940s was rooted in TV stations with strong signals on the VHF (or Very High Frequency) band of channels 2-13. As demand for new station applications built, the FCC gradually allowed commercial and public TV broadcasting on channels 14 through 69 on the Ultra High Frequency band. VHF outlets consistently delivered better picture quality, until cable TV came along in the late 1970s and helped level the playing field.
The strong demand for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles was a prime use-case example that helped spark market interest in operating UHF TV channels in markets around the country. In truth, most major markets had few UHF outlets until the cable boom began gaining steam in the late 1970s. But in urban regions with sizable Latino populations, Spanish-language TV was a UHF station driver, as was the dawn of Fox Broadcasting Co. in the mid-1980s.
The KMEX was created by entrepreneurs out of San Antonio, Texas who were pioneers in Spanish-language TV and radio. Los Angeles was the obvious cornerstone of any Spanish-language media empire. A team that included investors connected to the Azcárraga family’s Mexican media dynasty Grupo Televisa were involved with KMEX-TV from the start. In 1962, KMEX became the big-city flagship of what was then dubbed Spanish International Network.
To get KMEX off the ground, its investors had to convince L.A.-area viewers to buy converter boxes in order for them to easily find channel 34 with what were then old-fashioned rabbit ears antennas. A deep-dive study of the origins of KMEX by historian Carlos Parra includes advertisements from newspaper La Opinion and other outlets touting the availability of TV set convertor boxes (running a steep $17-$25 by 1962 standards) that would allow viewers to easily tune in channels on the UHF band. KMEX partnered with the Thrifty drug chain to push converter boxes and locations of TV repair shops that could install the boxes. KMEX’s debut was reportedly delayed by more than a month while shops waited for more converter kits to arrive. Two years later, TV set manufacturers were mandated to add an easy to use dial for the UHF band in an effort to expand the marketplace.
According to Parra’s Nomadic Border website, the first words spoken on KMEX came from actor and newscaster Fernando Escandon: “Fernando Escandon read the first comments ever aired on KMEX: “Muy buenas tardes señoras y señores, KMEX Televisión Canal 34 inicia en estos momentos sus transmisiones” (“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, KMEX-TV Channel 34 is now beginning its broadcasts”).”
The SIN moniker would change to Univision in the late 1980s, when the SIN network of stations in major markets was acquired by Hallmark Corp. Seasoned Hollywood dealmaker A. Jerrold Perenchio swooped in to buy the company in a debt-ridden state in 1992. He took Univision Communications public and steered it for 15 years, greatly expanding its cable, news, sports and content operations. A clutch of private equity players led by investor Haim Saban acquired Univision in 2007, and the business changed hands again in late 2020. Former Viacom chief financial officer Wade Davis led a group that acquired the network and station assets. Davis, now CEO of TelevisaUnivision, promptly set about orchestrating a long-awaited full-fledged merger of Grupo Televisa and Univision, which was finally completed in January of this year.
Over the years KMEX has been an important launch pad for top broadcast journalists, including Jorge Ramos, who worked for KMEX’s local news operation in the mid-1980s after arriving from Mexico, and Maria Elena Salinas, who started her career at KMEX in 1981 as a reporter, anchor and public affairs host.
The station’s legend as a source of independent news for Latino communities was cemented in 1970 when Ruben Salazar, the renowned Mexican American journalist, left the Los Angeles Times to join KMEX as its news director. Only months later, Salazar was in the field covering an anti-Vietnam war march in East Los Angeles when he was killed after being stuck in the head by an LAPD tear gas cannister.
Over the years, KMEX has championed all manner of civic engagement issues for its core audience, from voter registration and citizenship drives to stay-in-school campaigns for yout to public policy and rights issues affecting Latino and immigrant communities.
“KMEX has a social responsibility and connection to the community unlike any other broadcast entity,” Santamaria said. “An example, in KMEX’s early years the community needed to be informed of the basic financial knowledge needed to become established in this country. Today, we disseminate critical information needed for entrepreneurs to grow and start creating generational wealth opportunities.”
KMEX is now the West Coast anchor of TelevisaUnivision’s TV station group that includes 59 owned-and-operated stations. TelevisaUnivision reaches some 100 million Spanish speakers a day across 36 broadcast, cable and streaming platforms in the U.S. and Mexico, including the fledgling streamers Vix and Vix+.
But in broadcast TV, all success is local. KMEX’s deep roots and brand credibility in the populous Los Angeles market is an invaluable resource for the entire enterprise.
“Our local TV stations are integral to the success of TelevisaUnivision – we are the ties that bind Univision to the Hispanic community at the local level with the best in programming, award-winning newscasts and community support,” Santamaria said. “Our KMEX viewers see us as a trusted source of information and guidance, and we never take that trust for granted.”
(Pictured top: The KMEX news team circa 1980s)