By Maria Speidel
From his boyhood apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, a young Armando Nuñez, GABELLI ’82, could look across the street to the old Madison Square Garden before it was torn down in the late 1960s. “Now it’s where Worldwide Plaza is, which is where our offices are in New York,” he says.
Today when he comes to town, the president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group looks out over his old neighborhood from a 30th-floor executive office. His primary office at CBS Television City in Los Angeles offers an equally impressive view—a panoramic vista of the Hollywood sign and surrounding hills. But both are dwarfed by the expansive global vision that has guided Nuñez as he’s taken CBS international and domestic distribution to new heights.
CBS Studios International, one of the divisions under his control, is the biggest supplier of U.S. programming abroad. And CBS Television Distribution, the domestic syndicator Nuñez runs, produces or distributes seven of the top 10 first-run syndicated shows, including Judge Judy and Dr. Phil. From Bonanza in Germany to the Arabic version of Entertainment Tonight to NCIS—the world’s most popular drama, seen by an estimated 57 million viewers—CBS content is nearly everywhere.
Sitting in his LA office, with a large screen split into several smaller feeds showing real-time CBS channels from all over the world, Nuñez is happy to explain a side of the entertainment business that few viewers think about.
“Most Americans don’t have an appreciation of how content gets monetized. Not only most Americans—most people in our own business don’t realize the very significant business that exists in exporting U.S. content,” says Nuñez, who was No. 7 on The Hollywood Reporter’s list of the top 25 Latinos in entertainment last year.
“People ask me this all the time: What happens to your shows in the Middle East? Our shows are enormously popular in the Middle East. People and governments may agree or disagree on America’s politics or stance on certain things, but most of the world loves Americana, and that’s what we export,” he says. “It’s incredibly entertaining.”
Nuñez joined CBS in 1999 and is credited with turning the company’s international business into a $1.3 billion enterprise, nearly tripling revenue in the past seven years.
Working with media outlets around the globe, he’s created new CBS-branded channels in the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. He’s taken hits like America’s Next Top Model and created local versions from Canada to Cambodia. Overall, CBS Studios International supplies programming in 30 different languages in 200 markets. And it has stakes in 18 channels globally, which broadcast in 24 languages to 70 million households.
“Make it good, and make it work in the United States,” he tells people when consulted on a show, and it will likely succeed globally. “We have great partners throughout the world who make our content successful.”
CBS has also made innovative and lucrative deals with Amazon, Netflix, and local digital platforms around the world. Last year, the international division licensed several series to Netflix to stream in seven European markets.The seasoned international executive has won the confidence of Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation, who charged him with running both international and domestic distribution. “Armando’s business acumen, international expertise, and New York tenacity has helped grow CBS’s business in a very dynamic international market,” says Moonves. “He’s one of the MVPs of our executive ranks.”
Nuñez says he’s “doing what I thought I wanted to do as a kid. I just didn’t think I was going to be this fortunate.”
While international TV distribution seems an oddly specific career for a child to aspire to, Nuñez had a mentor in his father, Armando Sr., who worked in film distribution for 20th Century Fox in Havana. In pre-revolutionary Cuba, this “meant that he would drive the film prints around to different movie theaters in Havana,” Nuñez says.
The family fled during the revolution, when Nuñez’s mother was eight months pregnant with him. “I was made in Cuba but born here,” he likes to say. And his father continued working for Fox in New York City. “I just thought my dad had the coolest job in the world,” he says.
With his dad’s connections, Nuñez appeared in the audience of The $10,000 Pyramid and New York’s own homegrown kids’ show, Wonderama, where “I almost won a bike,” he says. “All that kind of had an influence on me.”
Nuñez majored in marketing and management at Fordham, where he was a commuter student. Running between morning classes and afternoon jobs in Manhattan, he worked his way through college.
“I’m incredibly proud of my Jesuit education,” says Nuñez, who has been a member of Fordham’s Board of Trustees since 2012. “That inquisitive nature that the Jesuits encourage … is a good skill set to have.”
His first full-time job after graduation was at a company called Telepictures, which syndicated programming and sold specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer abroad.
There he sat punching messages into a telex machine. “I tell people, if you’re passionate about something, you take any job you can to get into the field,” even if it’s tedious, he says. “It doesn’t matter. You get in and you be that sponge.”
From the dumpy telex room, Nuñez climbed the ranks of the international entertainment industry. He was an account executive for Channel 47, then the local Spanish-language channel in New York. In the 1990s he was a vice president at Viacom, where he supplied programming for global MTV, VH1, and Showtime. Prior to joining CBS, he served as president of Universal International Television.
It’s a career that has him logging a lot of international miles. And he often finds himself back in his hometown, either for CBS business or for a board meeting at Fordham, where he actively supports efforts to attract top scholars. Last year, he hosted an LA event for alumni and prospective students that honored legendary sportscaster Vin Scully, FCRH ’49, on the set of Entertainment Tonight. And he established a scholarship for undergraduates at the Gabelli School, with preference given to Hispanic students.
When he does get to spend time at home, he enjoys relaxing with his wife, Madeline, and playing golf with his son, Daniel, 14. “We sit as a family and watch Amazing Race and Survivor,” he says, while also copping to enjoying non-CBS shows like The Walking Dead. Daniel was recently accepted at LA’s oldest’s Jesuit school, Loyola High School, and a few other schools. “He’s going to Loyola,” his father says with a definitive smile.
In 2011, Nuñez and his own dad made a trip to Cuba, during which Armando Sr. pointed out the Havana theaters he once supplied with films. With the United States only recently reestablishing diplomatic relations with the country, it’s too soon to tell if the younger Nuñez will be following in his father’s footsteps and bringing American shows to the family’s homeland.
But Nuñez clearly considers all countries fair game, noting that the growing middle classes in India and China could provide even more viewers someday. “At the end of the day,” he says, “there is not a market in the world of any significance where our content is not seen.”
—Maria Speidel is an LA-based freelance writer.