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Navigating new trends in the global content business.

Canela’s Isabel Rafferty Zavala on defying the downturn

Digital media firm Canela Media’s founder and CEO Isabel Rafferty Zavala reveals the company’s ambitious plans to treble its content investment in 2024.

Isabel Rafferty

Within the context of a contracting global media sector, Canela Media serves as a rare example of a company in all-out growth mode. The New York-headquartered digital media outfit was launched in 2019 with the goal of giving advertisers the ability to reach US Hispanic audiences en masse, partly through its free, ad-supported streaming offering Canela TV.

The company has expanded rapidly in the four-and-a-half years since, particularly after securing US$32m in a Series A funding round in early 2022.

In 2023, it produced around 700 hours of original content across news, unscripted, sports-adjacent programming, music-related shows, social influencer-led projects and kids, more than doubling its output from the previous year.

It has found hits with Secretos de Villanas, a reality series that sees well-known Mexican soap opera actresses living together in a vacation house, and has commissioned a spin-off, Secretos de las Indomables. Its true crime docuseries Narco Impacto, which investigates the drug-trafficking world, also performed well and has been renewed for a second season.

The two- to 12-year-old demo is considered as a cornerstone of the offering, with the company launching Spanish-language AVoD streamer Canela Kids in 2022. The service is focused on acquired titles like CoComelon, Ryan’s World and Strawberry Shortcake, but is increasingly supplementing those acquisitions with a pipeline of children’s originals, including educational animation series SúperEllas.

Elsewhere, it is in the early stages of building out a film business, having last year inked a partnership with Spanish-language media company Hemisphere Media to develop a slate of movie titles.

But Canela is only just getting started, according to founder and CEO Isabel Rafferty Zavala, with the company planning to triple its investment in content in 2024, in addition to significantly bulking up its library. “We’re looking for unique original programming that can make Canela stand out, at the same time as diversifying our library. Right now, we have more than 35,000 hours of content, which grew almost 40% last year,” she says.

Secretos de Villanas, a reality series that sees Mexican soap opera actresses living together

Canela boasts a powerhouse roster of investors and board members, including BBG Ventures, led by Susan Lyne, the former president of Disney-owned US broadcaster ABC, as well as Samsung’s investment arm Samsung Next and US media company Tegna.

As to whether Canela will soon pursue any M&As of its own, Rafferty Zavala says the company is “always looking to grow organically but also through acquisitions” and hints that announcements might be forthcoming.

Outside of potential M&As, some of Canela’s growth will come as it nearly doubles its headcount over the next year. Currently, the company has around 190 staffers, but as it moves into producing daily newscasts and broadens its pipeline of originals it will look to add around 150 new positions, says Rafferty Zavala. To that end, it opened a studio in Mexico in December to expand its in-house production capabilities, while another studio is under construction in Miami.

While the US Hispanic market has seen an influx of investment in recent years, Rafferty insists it remains “underserved” and that the growth trajectory looks robust for years to come.

But at the same time as growing its presence in the Spanish-speaking US market, Canela Media is eyeing expansion opportunities in various other Latin American markets. “Lat Am has been slow to mature, not in consumption of OTT but in investment, so a lot of advertisers that were not investing in OTT or connected TV are slowly starting to do so,” she notes.

Rafferty Zavala declines to specify which Lat Am markets Canela will target first, but insists she is not underestimating the scope of the undertaking.

“The biggest challenge is the continued global expansion into more Latin American countries, from hiring quickly in those markets to making sure our original programming resonates with that audience and ensuring we acquire local programming to have an attractive offering,” she says.