Jesús de Polanco is a self-made media mogul. Through good times and bad, the founder and chairman of Spain's Grupo Prisa has over the past four decades built a handful of publishing ventures into one of the largest media groups in the Spanish-speaking world. His $1.4 billion company owns El País, Spain's most widely read newspaper, Canal Satélite Digital, the leading pay-TV platform, and SER, a radio network with 4.5 million listeners. Prisa's publishing empire, spawned in the 1960s when Polanco went door to door selling books in Spain and Latin America, stretches from Barcelona to Buenos Aires.
Polanco, 73, shows few signs of slowing down, especially now that his company has emerged victorious from a four-year battle for dominance of Spain's pay-TV market. A rival satellite-TV platform hastily assembled by telecom giant Telefónica conceded defeat earlier this year, and is being merged into Canal Satélite Digital. That leaves Prisa owner of the sole satellite service in Spain. Polanco is now focused on two new ventures: developing a network of local-TV broadcasters in Spain and a chain of Spanish- and Portuguese-language radio stations throughout Latin America. The idea is "to push ahead in two areas where we have the knowhow and resources, but where there is currently no other competitor trying to do the same," says Juan Luis Cebrián, Polanco's right-hand man and Prisa's chief executive. Polanco himself rarely gives interviews these days.
But Prisa's home-court advantage may not last forever. The Spanish government has been mulling restrictions on the number of media outlets a single company can control. The market in Latin America, meanwhile, poses different challenges. It's dominated by local players and the economic and political environment can be volatile. "Although interesting, both of these strategies are risky," says Rodrigo Pinheiro, head of research at Espírito Santo Securities in Lisbon.
However, Polanco and his deputies are used to operating in uncharted territory. The left-leaning El País was started in 1976 when a Franco-era mind-set still permeated Spain's newspaper market. In the late 1980s, when Spanish TV was dominated by a handful of national broadcasters, Prisa pioneered pay TV by launching a Spanish version of Vivendi Universal's popular Canal+ channel. Now, Polanco is aggressively pursuing his new strategies. Prisa has plowed $30 million into ventures with local partners to launch 73 TV stations around Spain, forming the basis of the new "Localia" network. In Latin America, it has spent more than $100 million on radio stations. It owns a 77% stake in Radio Caracol, the biggest network in Colombia, and has holdings in Mexico, Chile, and Miami. Prisa is also eyeing opportunities in Brazil and Argentina.
Some think these plans too grand. But Polanco and his crew -- three of his four children work in the family business -- have a way of proving skeptics wrong. "The potential, we think, is huge," says Cebrián. In an industry that is built around getting people's attention, expect all eyes -- and ears -- to remain on Prisa.