Time's Up: Isaac Lee Out at Univision

The architect has fallen.

The shakeup at Univision continues apace, and Chief Content Officer Isaac Lee becomes the most recent high-level departure at the beleaguered media giant.

Per Univision’s corporate statement:

Today concludes Lee’s seven and a half year term with Univision, where he led Univision News, Univision Digital and finally all content including The Root, The Onion and Gizmodo Media before taking the joint role as Chief Content Officer of UCI and Televisa in January 2017. During his tenure, Univision News won more than 100 prestigious awards for its outstanding journalism, including several EMMY’s, Premio de Periodismo Rey de España, IRE, Cronkite, Alfred I. Dupont-Columbia, Peabody, Edward R. Murrow Award amongst others. Daniel Coronell, a formidable journalist and TV producer, will continue as President of News.

History will remember that Lee’s tenure at Univision began as Vice President of its news division, and that his first major splash as such was to greenlight the despicable effort to blackmail U.S. Senator Marco Rubio into appearing on the network (for the purpose of being browbeat on immigration by Jorge Ramos) in exchange for killing a story that suggested he profited from his brother-in-law’s narcotics enterprise. In the 1980s. As a teenager. (Politico’s Marc Caputo, then with the Miami Herald, covered the story, and his summary can be found here.)

On Lee’s watch, Univision’s news operation would increasingly turn to an activism-based model of reporting where immigration reigned supreme, and took it upon itself to enforce the notion that a belief in immigration policy was somehow a central tenet of the Hispanic ethnopolitical identity. I submit Jorge Ramos’ contemptuous opinion column cheering Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio’s defeat in the 2016 presidential primary as an example of the sort of openly partisan behavior that Lee indulged at Univision, which culminated in a massive loss of credibility after the 2016 presidential election.

Lee would eventually sow the seeds of his doom with the founding of Fusion (a joint venture between Univision and ABC-Disney until Disney got tired of bleeding money), which was intended to keep English-dominant Hispanic eyeballs. But neither the network nor its companion website caught any significant traction- which led to a string of repackagings and repurposings that continues to this day.

When it became clear that U.S. Hispanic growth was not going to come from immigration but from births and that Fusion was doomed to be a flop, Lee then set out to double down on his Milennial-capture strategy by acquiring the remnants of Gawker Media (now known as Gizmodo Media Group). This also turned out to be a colossal failure. From Gizmodo’s Special Projects Desk, which catalogued the network's many woes leading up to this point, including Lee's tenure:

In the aftermath of the failed IPO, conflict grew on the board over how this attack would be carried out; that conflict’s precise nature remains frustratingly opaque. Reports have put the estimated total cuts the board looks to make at $200 million (or more); the company has disputed this estimate but has not asked the publications reporting it for corrections or clarified what the target is. Univision declined to answer questions about the budget cuts. In one version of the story, management decided to bring in BCG to help trim the budgets of underperforming units. In another version of the story, Isaac Lee and Haim Saban advocated cutting as much of this amount as possible from the corporate side of the company, which one FOIL characterized as armies of managers making seven-figure salaries in do-nothing jobs, rather than from Lee’s own fiefdom. (Lee declined to comment; Saban could not be reached.) Lee’s and Saban’s enemies, meanwhile—among them, supposedly, Thomas H. Lee Partners, rattled by the iHeartMedia bankruptcy—took the cost-cutting exercise as an opportunity to, among other things, destroy Lee’s power base, which, if it contained plenty of waste and bloat, also contained the newsgathering and digital operations that were the most vital and forward-looking parts of the company.

Lee’s final mission as Chief Content Officer was to bring Televisa’s programming in line with U.S. tastes. This was a vital mission because Televisa, which owns over 40% of Univision, collects over $300 million/year from its U.S. partner in exchange for programming, which in the past has consisted mostly of telenovelas and game shows developed in Mexico for a mexican audience. Time will tell whether this mission ultimately succeeded, and whether Univision's offerings are more suited to the tastes of a U.S. Hispanic audience..

What is clear, however, is that the chief architect of the radicalization of the nation’s largest Spanish-language network is gone and he won’t be missed. After each of our analyses of the changes at Univision, we'd wonder how many more moves Lee had left. We now have that answer, and it is our sincere hope that Isaac Lee’s successor will work to undo some of the damage done.

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