Honoring Don Emilio, San Antonio’s Spanish-Language TV Pioneer

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Emilio Nicolas in the studios of KWEX-TV around 1980. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

The histories of Emilio Nicolas, Sr., KWEX-TV 41, and Spanish-language television are so intertwined, attempts to talk about one and not the other two would be futile. Don Emilio, as he is affectionately known, managed to turn around a struggling, Spanish-language television station in San Antonio, which very few people could even access, that became the media giant known today as Univision.

To honor his accomplishments, Nicolas is slated to receive a 2015 Texas Medal for the Arts Award in Multi-Media. Among other honorees will be notables such as Jamie Foxx, Chandra Wilson and T Bone Burnett. The event will take place at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin next Wednesday, Feb. 25.

The story of Spanish-language media in San Antonio starts with Raoul A. Cortez in the 1940s. After renting time on a local radio station to air Spanish-language programming, he obtained a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1946. KCOR-AM went on the air and was immediately popular with listeners and advertisers alike.

Riding on the success of his radio venture, Cortez subsequently obtained a television license from the FCC. He built a modernistic TV studio on Durango (now Chávez) Blvd. (The building was recently torn down, amid controversy.) In 1955, KCOR-TV went on the air, located at Channel 41.

That channel location was the problem. Television sets at the time only had channels 2 through 13 on the dial, along with a mysterious "U", which stood for UHF (Ultra-High Frequency). Worse, TV antennas manufactured at the time weren't compatible with UHF frequencies. No one could watch the station without a set-top UHF adapter and a UHF antenna. This turned out to be a recipe for disaster, and by 1960, the station was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The next year, KCOR-TV was purchased by a group of investors, including Emilio Nicolas, who became general manager. He renamed the station KWEX-TV, in honor of the station XEW in Mexico City.

Long-time KWEX employee Andres Ricardo Morin reads the news. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

Long-time KWEX employee Andres Ricardo Morin reads the news. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

It wasn't an easy business for him, either. "We lost money for the first seven years," Nicolas stated in an interview. The UHF accessibility problem persisted. "We had to advertise UHF antennas all the time. It was two strikes against us."

One of the first things Nicolas and partner Rene Anselmo did was to go to Washington to lobby for a requirement that all TV sets must have UHF tuners. They ultimately prevailed, but the problem did not lead to immediate results. Homes with older TV sets still needed add-ons to watch Canal 41, as it was commonly referred to back then.

According to Nicolas, he started out with just one television camera. He soon obtained two used DuMont cameras from the ABC affiliate in Tijuana, and was able to set up a TV remote truck. They used this mobile rig to cover the John F. Kennedy motorcade that went down Houston Street on Nov. 21, 1963,  the day before the president was assassinated in Dallas.

Despite all the obstacles, the group of investors soldiered on. They established stations in other key markets, including Los Angeles and Miami. This led to the birth of Spanish International Communications Corporation (SICC), the holding company for the broadcast stations, and SIN (Spanish International Network), which provided programming and national advertising.

Not that it was easy to get advertising. As Nicolas puts it, "No one saw it except the Mexican-Americans. The ad agencies didn't see it, and if they did, they didn't understand it." But that didn't deter Nicolas. He was a tireless salesman who didn't like to take "no" for an answer.

Early ads were simple affairs, as was the equipment. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

Early ads were simple affairs, as was the equipment. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

"I admire his tenacity," said former SIN/Univision anchor Juan Ruiz-Healy, "Good days, bad days – he believed in his product."

In order to get business from national ad agencies, Anselmo moved to New York when there were only two stations, but ultimately representing all the SIN network stations as they went on the air.

As a network, SIN faced another technical hurdle. In the 1960s, broadcast networks used microwave towers to relay the signal to affiliate stations. Using this technology was simply too expensive for SIN. To share programming, they would ship films and videotapes of programs from station to station, in a round-robin sort of arrangement. San Antonio was the distribution hub. The bulk of this programming was obtained from Mexican TV giant Televisa, but this also led to high levels of debt to Televisa.

According to the sintv.org website, by 1975 SICC Chairman Frank Fouce was unhappy with the high debt and low profitability of the company. He wanted to sell out. Originally, he agreed sell his shares, then changed his mind. This led to an 11-year lawsuit.

That same year, Nicolas and Archbishop Patricio Flores started the Teléton Navideño, which became an annual tradition to raise funds for those in need in our community.

Archbishop Flores and Nicolas ceremonially press a transmitter button. The Chief Engineer is probably behind them fretting they'll actually do it. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

Archbishop Flores and Nicolas ceremonially press a transmitter button. The Chief Engineer is probably behind them fretting they'll actually do it. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

Regardless of the lawsuit, the company continued to grow. 1976 was a watershed year, as KWEX-TV obtained the first satellite network TV uplink in the United States. Several dignitaries, including San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell, attended the dedication ceremony. Nicolas' wife, Irma broke a champagne bottle on the base of the satellite dish to mark the occasion.

"The satellite dish is what made us," Nicolas said. He recalled that years before, he visited the home of a scientist in California. In his garage was a prototype telecommunications satellite. This gave him a vision for the future.

Newspaper article about 1976 satellite dedication. Image courtesy sintv.org.

Newspaper article about 1976 satellite dedication. Image courtesy sintv.org.

In 1986, a legal decision finally came down. The ruling was against SICC. Rene Anselmo, SICC President at the time, stepped down and was replaced by Emilio Nicolas Sr.

The broadcast stations had to be sold. Originally, Nicolas had a buyer that would allow him to retain his ownership stake, but that deal fell through. He then went to Bear Stearns in New York to seek a buyer. In 1987, Hallmark Corporation (yes, the greeting card people) bought the SICC and renamed it the Univision Station Group. Around the same time, SIN was rebranded Univision. Nicolas stepped down as President.

After that, Nicolas was involved in several smaller ventures. He owned four low-power TV stations in San Antonio, Austin, and Corpus Christi. For a number of years, these stations ran programming from the Galavision network.

Irma Nicolas, Dan Rather, Mrs. Rather and Emilio Nicolas at the 2006 NAB convention. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

Irma Nicolas, Dan Rather, his spouse Jean Goebel, and Emilio Nicolas at the 2006 NAB convention. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

In recent years, Nicolas has been awarded numerous times for his pioneering work in Spanish-language television. But the one he treasures the most was the "Spirit of Broadcasting" Award given to him – along with departed Raoul Cortez – in 2006 by the National Association of Broadcasters. He feels this one is most important because his peers in the broadcast business awarded it to him.

Now in his 80s, Nicolas is retired, but his mind is still sharp. He stays connected using the latest technology, such as reading the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every day on his iPad. When I walked into his home for an interview, he immediately recognized me as a former KWEX-TV employee from 30 years ago.

"I'm so glad they sent you to interview me," he said.

Nicolas is well-regarded by his former employees, including myself. "Emilio would invite the workers to his house – they were like family," says Ruiz-Healy.

Emilio Nicolas in the KWEX-TV studio. The tall guy operating the camera looks familiar... Photo courtesy sintv.org.

Emilio Nicolas in the KWEX-TV studio. The tall guy operating the camera looks familiar... Photo courtesy sintv.org.

I worked for Mr. Nicolas (as we called him) at KWEX-TV from 1984 until his departure in 1987. His hard work and ultimate success served as an inspiration to me.

During a banquet to honor him as he departed from KWEX in 1987 (I was there to videotape the event), Mr. Nicolas gave me some lasting advice: "You are very good at what you do. Just keep focusing on what you do well and don't worry about the money. The money will ultimately come your way." Words to live by.

Thank you, Mr. Nicolas.

*Featured/top image: Emilio Nicolas in the studios of KWEX-TV around 1980. Photo courtesy sintv.org.

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