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How 'Jane the Virgin' Producer Jorge Granier Aims to Turn a Family Legacy into a New Digital Empire

First Posted: Mar 11, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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Jorge Granier found a way to give his family's legacy -- archival television programs from his family's media company, and former Venezuelan TV channel RCTV -- a new life online. Now he's set his sights on creating a global Spanish-language streaming empire.

Growing Up In the Family Business

Born in 1981 in Caracas, Venezuela, Jorge Granier Phelps grew up in a family of media moguls. His great-great grandfather, William Henry Phelps, had launched one of Venezuela's first radio stations in the city back in 1930. Over the years, Radio Caracas turned into Radio Caracas TV (RCTV), the country's first privately owned television station, which was passed down to Jorge's father, Marcel Granier.

It seemed destined that the young Granier would end up in the family business: television. "I always was involved with television, media, and entertainment," said Granier in an exclusive interview with Latin Post. "I started working at the TV station when I was 15 years old, over the summer," he recalled, "and I kind of fell in love with the whole television world."

Besides a period spent attending high school abroad, in Connecticut, Granier spent his teen years working in different positions at the family business. Despite what some might expect knowing his lineage, Granier had to start in the unglamorous bowels of television: the archives.

"My first job was actually a really boring archiving job," he said. "I was archiving all these news clippings," said Granier. "It wasn't exciting," he added in understatement.

"I really wanted to get out of that office -- with no windows -- where I was." Granier found an opportunity to do that when he noticed something in the news clippings he was archiving: "There was a lot of tension between Colombia and Venezuela," due to the mid-90s oil boom based in the Gulf of Venezuela, but Granier picked up on a largely overlooked trend, at odds with the uneasy zeitgeist of the time. "There were a lot of Colombian companies operating in Venezuela that provided jobs and were helping the economy."

"So I went and pitched a special news cast on the positive influence of Colombian businesses in Venezuela," he said. Long story short: "They accepted my pitch, and I moved from the little room with no windows to work with the news team," where he got to interview CEOs of large companies, created a five-minute news segment, and fell in love with producing.

"Creating material for the screen," he put it broadly.

Granier continued to work at various positions throughout the company -- he was on set during tapings of "Juana la Virgen," the Venezuelan original that he would later remake for the U.S. as his breakout hit "Jane the Virgin" -- and went to college in New York and Caracas for liberal arts and business administration.

After college, Granier found work at an investment bank in New York focusing on media, but quit and moved to Los Angeles to produce Latin American-geared films, including a feature length documentary he directed about Pablo Escobar.

"I finished that in 2007," noted Granier. That year holds a lot of significance for Granier and his family.

The Bottom Drops Out from RCTV

Since 1987, when Granier was 6 years old, RCTV had been operating under a 20-year broadcast license renewed by then-President Jaime Lusinchi's administration.

But when Hugo Chávez took office in the late '90s, friction began to increase between the controversial but media-savvy Chávez and RCTV, a privately owned station that had become the most popular channel in the country. Tensions escalated further when RCTV and four other private TV stations gave advertising space to anti-Chávez groups calling for demonstrations, in the days leading up to the attempted (and failed) coup of 2002.

After his reelection in 2006, Chávez declared that he would not renew RCTV's broadcast license when it expired in March 2007 in a televised speech. The license "runs out in March," said Chávez. "So it's better that you go and prepare your suitcase and look around for what you're going to do in March."

"There will be no new operating license for this coupist TV channel called RCTV. The operating license is over. ... So go and turn off the equipment," Chávez taunted.

Soon after, the government seized RCTV's broadcast equipment, replacing RCTV's home on millions of TVs for over 50 years, Channel 2, with a new state-run network called TVes. RCTV had received criticism for favoring the anti-government side of the 2002 coup, but Chávez's takeover -- "unconstitutionally," noted Granier -- was widely condemned by international observers as an assault on free speech and the press.

Politics aside, in business terms, it meant RCTV losing its widest means of distribution overnight. It put the family in crisis mode, and Granier wanted to help. Doing so would change the course of his career.

"I went back to Caracas and talked to my father and people in the company," he said, about what he could do for the beleaguered RCTV. It meant moving away from L.A. -- away from his budding and independent director/producer career -- to Miami, to once again work for the family business at what soon became RCTV International.

"I was there for a couple of years, just traveling to different markets around the world and selling TV shows in over 120 countries," as part of the company's gambit to survive in exile.

But Granier -- whose age put him in the earliest wave of the first "digital native" generation, the Millennials -- felt there was something more RCTV could do, "Digitally ... since we no longer had a premium screen in Venezuela." He added, "Also there was a lot of potential of bringing Latin American content, Latin American talent, to the U.S." So for the second time, he prepared to pitch his project to the company in 2010.

That year, the Venezuelan government targeted RCTV again. Without its broadcasting license, RCTV had still managed to operate in Venezuela through cable and other pay TV avenues, until Chávez's administration "changed the law retroactively and threatened the pay TV operators not to carry RCTV," according to Granier.

A Digital (re)-Birth for RCTV Shows

"It was around that time that I went to RCTV and said, 'Let's do something with all of our content. Let's explore digital rights.'"

"At first, there was resistance to how profitable and viable it could be, a digital business, in 2011. Like it was more of a hassle than a real business," he said. "Ultimately it became, 'You guys do it, and take the risk.'"

Granier's pitch basically required launching a new digital distribution business based on the licensed telenovelas and other content that RCTV owned -- a task that Granier took upon himself, as the rest of RCTV focused on the turmoil at home.

"That was the first of GoTV, which was my original company," he said. RCTV gave him the licenses, but building a digital content company requires digital content. So once again, Granier found himself in the archives.

"A lot of the time in the beginning was spent just getting all the content ... digitizing, prepping, adding metadata to that content ... and also sorting out what was the best to promote ... [I]t was a monumental task," he said. But Granier soon found a new digital home for RCTV shows through partnerships with content-hungry digital platforms like Hulu Latino, Netflix Latin America, and Google's YouTube, where Granier particularly found "A huge audience. ... [I]t's grown to 60 million views per month... and the growth has definitely accelerated."

... And Beyond

"All along," while getting the distribution business off the ground, "I was also searching and curating the content to see what things could pop in the U.S. market" as an English-language remake for U.S. Latinos.

One of those shows that "popped," to put it lightly, became The CW's "Jane the Virgin." But getting that show off the ground involved more than just digitizing a show, Granier had to pitch it to producers.

"I remember being laughed out of rooms when I was pitching 'Jane the Virgin,'" he said. "Literally. People have fallen in love with it now, but people thought it was crazy. 'What's this show about a girl that's a virgin who gets artificially inseminated?'"

But when its first season aired, "Jane" became a critical and popular hit, winning a People's Choice Award for "favorite new TV comedy."

(Photo : Jorge Granier) Jorge Granier and fellow Executive Producer Gary Pearl (second to left), on set with 'Jane the Virgin' stars Jaime Camil, Gina Rodriguez, and Justin Baldoni

Building on his success distributing Spanish-language TV and producing original shows for the U.S. market, GoTV picked up more clients and more content.

It merged in 2014 with the film-focused Latin Anywhere to become a Latin Everywhere, a 12-employee startup with an audience of millions, tens of thousands of hours of Spanish-language TV and films, and a hit English-language TV remake already under its belt by launch day.

But Granier and his partner Rich Hull have their sights set on more. Late last year, Latin Everywhere bought a digital platform for the web and mobile devices called Inmoo and launched its own in-house digital streaming service early this year. It's called Pongalo -- "play it" in Spanish.

Pongalo is an underdog in the streaming market, but the startup has some powerful cards to play as well. Digital streaming is "a really hot and contested space," conceded Granier, but he noted that most of his potential competitors for online audiences, like Hulu Latino, already run Latin Everywhere content through distribution deals.

In any case, none of those competitors are focused on becoming a worldwide Spanish-language streaming hub, which is what Granier wants Pongalo to become.

Currently in public beta, Pongalo will launch over the summer, with an emphasis on mobile devices, as both a free, ad-based streaming app and later under a Netflix-style, ad-free subscription model as well. "We have a successful story to tell ... and there's a lot of work to be done," said Granier, "but that's the exciting part."

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