'Sabado Gigante' at 50

Now celebrating a record-breaking 50 years on air, the key behind the longevity of “Sabado Gigante” lies with its creator and host Mario Kreutzberger — aka Don Francisco — whose pioneering spirit has driven the variety show to stay fresh, topical and above all, entertaining.

It was ahead of the curve even when Kreutzberger launched it in 1962 in Chile, where television was still a nascent industry.

“?’Sabado Gigante’ featured singing competitions way before ‘American Idol’ and dancing contests years before ‘Dancing With the Stars,’?” says Antonio Ruiz, a partner at premier U.S. Hispanic ad agency the Vidal Partnership.

For five uninterrupted decades, with no reruns, this three-hour program has been a Saturday night viewing habit for tens of millions of Spanish-speakers worldwide, including the U.S. Nielsen reports that “Sabado Gigante” ranked No. 1 among Hispanics 18-49 this season.

“The show’s biggest highlight — and I say this knowing that it could be interpreted as adulation — is its host, Don Francisco, who has the ability to adapt and present the most diverse segments, from interviews with presidents and professionals to conversations with kids, introducing new singers or established performers (and) participating in comedy sketches,” says Cuco Arias, VP-exec producer for “Sabado Gigante” and its younger offshoot, talkshow “Don Francisco Presenta.”

Arias has been with the show since December 1986, a few months after it launched in April that year on Miami station WLTV-Channel 23 and just as the possibility of broadcasting it nationwide via Univision began to be considered. Once decided, Arias’ initial task was to hold auditions across the U.S. to seek contestants and talent for the show.

“At first it was difficult to book contestants or guests, because Hispanics weren’t used to participating in TV shows in the U.S.,” he recalls. “At the auditions, we tried to find the most outgoing applicants, those who could contribute something entertaining or lighthearted to the show and that were willing to tell us a bit about their lives, their families.”

Speaking from his vineyard in Chile, Kreutzberger relates how he made Saturdays his own, expanding what started as a one-hour show to fill up some eight hours. Then to top it off, he conducted a two-hour talk show, “Night of Giants” in the evening.

“I was on air for almost 10 hours a week from 1968 to 1986,” he recalls.

He then decided to take “Sabado Gigante” to the U.S. and cut the show time in half in order to do four hours in Chile and four in Miami. For some six years, he shuttled between Miami and Santiago de Chile, spending three-and-a-half days in each.

In his autobiography “Life, Camera, Action!” he relates how it got so maddening in the race to the airport every week that he was involved in at least two car crashes. In one accident that totaled his car, the man whose car he hit recognized him and rushed him to the airport.

“I was supported only by my ego,” he muses.

Those madcap days are over, and he now produces the show just once a month in Chile, while the three versions of “Sabado Gigante” (U.S., international and Chilean) are shot in Miami, with 50% done live.

He also uses his visits to Chile to conduct a long-running telethon that funds the construction of hospitals, one of many philanthropic causes he champions.

“Sabado Gigante” continues to reach 1.4 million to 1.5 million households a week, a slight dip from its peak between 2004 and 2006 of 1.6 million to 1.7 million households. But it has also learned to adjust to the advances in technology, social media and audience habits.

“We were the first to launch a web page in the U.S. Hispanic market, even ahead of Univision, some 17 years ago,” Kreutzberger points out.

As Don Francisco, he never fails to mention the show’s Facebook and Twitter accounts while bantering with his studio audience.

“In the longterm, we’d like to increase the show’s interactivity so that viewers at home can have more extensive participation in the show through the different platforms that are available,” says Arias.

With the current proliferation of DVRs, Kreutzberger’s insistence on integrating products and sponsored segments from the outset has made him appear even more forward-looking than his peers and kept the show profitable.

The program also introduced closed captions in English in early February, to reach the fast-growing bilingual and English-dominant Hispanics in the U.S.

“In the early years, ‘Sabado Gigante’ attracted an average age group of 33 years, but now 45% of its audience is above 50,” says Ruiz. “The show’s main challenge is to capture a younger audience once more.”

Meanwhile, Kreutzberger is working on a documentary about “Sabado Gigante” to be ready by year’s end. Celebrations will culminate in a live extravaganza at the Nokia Theater in September alongside flagship Univision station KMEX, which will also celebrate its 50th anniversary.

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